Siri, How well do you really know me ?

Internet privacy is an issue that sounds to me like a classical manifestation of “you cannot have your cake and eat it too”. I remember several years ago, in the early 2000’s, when I started using Amazon and whenever I came back to the website it seems to somehow know how I think and what I want — To me at that time this was simply amazing. Fast forward two decades, and today we are surrounded by services that rely on self-evolving algorithms simply designed to “get to know you”. Well I believe I have mixed feelings about this.

I passionately utilize several of these services every day, probably more than the average person does. My everyday watch is a Garmin Fenix, which continuously tracks my steps, location, heart rate, stress levels and sleep cycles and whenever I step into my house it automatically synchs everything through Wi-Fi to my online Garmin account. I weigh myself with a “connected scale” that pushes my weight changes and other bio data through a cloud and synchs itself with various other health applications on my phone. Facebook is everyday suggesting to me people I never saw in my life, but probably bumped into through a meeting “Yes, we know you utilize location-based friend suggestions Facebook even if you deny doing so” and Amazon though a 20 years relationship seems to really understand now my taste in clothing. All this is not bothering me at all and for a very simple reason. I do not actually “have” to use any of this, and I am happy with the service I am getting. It is my choice.

Besides, none of these services are “yet” doing something that is not written in fine print on the box, and I believe they do their best to secure the user’s consent whenever an identity sharing incident is about to happen. Most importantly, they “getting to know you” ecosystem is what gives the services their immersive experience and keeps us glued to them most of our waking hours, it’s what keeps them apart from the competition and the more immersive they get the more people opt into it. This is the experience we wanted it and signaled clearly to the companies that we want it through exponential adoption rates. We asked for more, so they gave us more, it is as simple as that.

But my problems start when I am intruded from services that 1) I do have to use without an alternative 2) I didn’t opt to use in the first place 3) “legally” hack into what I agreed to use. A good example for the first domain is my cell phone line. I can easily give up Facebook and my watch, but cell service has become an integral part of our daily human communications paradigm that it has become virtually impossible to abandon. When I first came here to the US the first thing I did straight out of the plane was getting an AT&T line to call my family, and the following day the fun started. Each day at least three calls from different random numbers all trying to sell me something. At first, I thought they were actual people, but later figured that they are automated bots designed to behave like humans over the phone, including answering queries and everything. How they got my number is obvious actually; either they got it from AT&T themselves, or from CVS where I signed up for a loyalty card, and both are denying this happened, but one of them has sold my data within a time span of less than 24 hours. What can I do about it now? Absolutely nothing! as 1) my number now is with so many people that it will be a real hassle informing them with the change “along with a huge number of online school/government forms that I do not remember but they might need to call me someday and 2) There is a very fair chance that even if I change the operator this whole story will just repeat itself. I am trapped.

Another issue is when services get access to my data simply because one of their users has it, the entire “sync your data” feature on most social networking services is not making me comfortable. I give my phone number and email to someone because I know that person, but by doing that I am not implicitly authorizing that person to share my data with whichever service asking him to sync his device to it. And finally, I was both worried and “not surprised” reading http://wapo.st/2y88Eqk from the Washington post. It is of every nation’s security agencies mandate to protect it, but collecting 27 terabytes of location data on random people is not entirely the image I would have seen the US project on itself as the promised land of liberties and freedom.

To me the issues that are making me uncomfortable are simply beyond my control, there’s nothing to do about them or change comes at a significant inconvenience. But for everything else everyone has a clear and easy choice — stop using the service if you do not like it.

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