Photo by Dayne Topkin

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Enjoying the benefits of the myriad online services we use every day is incredibly convenient. In fact, it’s so convenient that we’re ready to accept terms and conditions without thinking about what’s actually in there. Have you read the novel-sized wall of text for every single service you signed up for? I bet you haven’t. Neither have I. Has anyone? Probably not.

With that said, those terms and conditions point out exactly what you’re giving up in exchange for the convenience those services provide you with. In order to use Google, Facebook, Instagram, or any other “free” online service, you consent to being watched wherever you go online. But so does everyone else.

Anyone using anything online these days has agreed to trade away their privacy for convenience. But does it have to be this way? Do we really have to choose between living under dystopian surveillance and going back to printed maps and the yellow pages? The answer might surprise you.

Convenience at the cost of privacy

Even though most of us don’t want to admit it, the fact is that whether we want our online activities tracked by tech companies is ultimately a personal decision. But let’s be honest – it’s not an easy one.

Yes, Facebook can help Cambridge Analytica build a detailed psychological profile based on your likes and comments and then use it to influence your vote. Yes, Google can scan and read your emails and tailor ads based on what you wrote to your friends, colleagues, and loved ones. Yes, people tend to act shocked and appalled when they hear about this. But then again, surrendering our data to the likes of Facebook and Google can also make our lives a lot easier.

By giving up your privacy, you can (among other things):

  • See who’s ringing your doorbell in real-time – from a hotel room thousands of miles away
  • Tell your smart fridge to order groceries for you
  • Get accurate, near-instant directions to your destination
  • Do your shopping from your steaming bathtub
  • Take virtual tours through museums and galleries on the other side of the planet

Just ten years ago, most of these comforts simply didn’t exist. Now, though, you can do these things and much, much more – all for the small cost of Big Brother’s all-seeing gaze never leaving your phone or computer.

But should you be comfortable with giving up your data to third parties so easily? Maybe, maybe not. If you live in a free country, it’s for you to decide. Just keep in mind that becoming a hardcore privacy purist can make you look like a paranoid luddite at parties.

Winds of change

Let’s say that when it comes to privacy, you want to have your cake and eat it, too. Is that even possible? It actually might be – in fact, increasingly so.

Thanks to growing demand from consumers, some businesses are already starting to embrace the concept of privacy as a selling point. Companies like DuckDuckGo, ProtonMail and Mozilla are already putting privacy at the forefront of their business model.

At the same time, the VPN industry is skyrocketing, in part because of users who are looking to keep their online traffic away from the prying eyes of Silicon Valley (or the friendly neighborhood intelligence agency). So, it looks like part of the tech industry is finally beginning to look for a healthier balance between privacy and convenience.

Sadly, businesses like those are still relatively few and far between. After all, educating people about the value of their data is a challenge, and expecting companies to put privacy first without being prompted to do so is somewhat naive.

But that’s where governments are beginning to step in. Regulations like the GDPR and the CCPA are forcing companies to at least give consumers an option to opt out of their massive data collection operations. And it turns out that we’re often fine with giving up some of our data, so long as we’re made aware it’s a choice and there’s an option to do otherwise. What we don’t like is finding out that our data is being siphoned off without our knowledge.

The middle ground is where you want it to be

At the end of the day, should we put the responsibility for securing our privacy solely on the shoulders of governments or corporations and exclude ourselves from the decision-making process? Not necessarily.

By educating ourselves and those around us about personal privacy, we can be the ones who decide what happens with our data. We can also vote with our wallets by rewarding businesses that put privacy first.

Or we can continue to postulate about our “right to privacy,” all the while using products that are incredibly convenient and also spy on us and sell our data to third parties. But if all we care about is convenience, maybe privacy is something we don’t really deserve?

(Disclaimer: The author is a writer at Cyber News)

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