A daily dilemma: convenience or privacy

Apparently, these are my ad preferences on Facebook

The idea that my digital whereabouts, actions, and navigation through the digital world can be tracked and viewed by other people is nothing new. Coming from a country like Singapore, the idea that other people are privy to my digital footprint is hardly surprising.

For the past 10–12 years, this idea has been key in shaping my cyber behaviour, as I somewhat self-censor the views and content I share on public forums, the digital persona I create of myself in the virtual world and the traces I leave behind — not that I have anything to hide! With the level of permanence that exists on the internet, the only way I felt in control is by being conscious about my digital footprint; the digital artefacts I create that will live on probably for eternity, or at least for the foreseeable future.

What’s new(er), I think, is the type and granularity of this data, the people who have access to it and how it’s being used. As Marwick’s article, ‘How your data are being deeply mined’, suggests, the data many companies have access to now go beyond visible data, like comments, photos, videos, etc., but also invisible data, like the sites I visit, how long I spend there, etc. [1], that paint a vivid picture about my behaviour and personality. These data points are, in effect, being fed back to me in an attempt to add value to digital services and make them more meaningful, like tailored ads and hyper-hyper-relevant search results for example.

Increasingly, however, I find maintaining this level of privacy more challenging. I find myself having to choose between convenience and privacy a handful of times each day; from the content I share on social media to whether to allow my browser to save my passwords and allow apps to access my GPS data. And, over the years, I’ve given in to more of these conveniences in favour of saving time logging into email accounts, seamless connections between my Macbook Pro, iPhone and iPad that allow me to pick up where I left off in a jiffy and shopping online with a click of a button. It feels like a great cognitive load has been lifted off me. It’s a lifestyle that I have grown accustomed to, and almost expect, to the point where small things like having to manually login to a website seems like an arduous task. My tolerance towards systems that don’t match this level of convenience and customisation has slowly diminished over time. This results in a narrowing of the range of tools I use and websites I access. It creates the sort of filter bubble that Eli Pariser refers to in his TED talk, ‘Beware online “filter bubbles”’ [2], but one that is not only limited by the algorithms of individual websites, but also the range of websites (or algorithms) themselves.

Yet, every time I choose convenience over keeping my personal data private, I feel this sense of guilt; like I’m letting myself down, like I’m not standing up for my privacy rights. And, it shouldn’t have to be this way. The power of data in technology is clear. But its “black box”-like model [3] that is void of transparency invites distrust from consumers, like myself. With more transparency from companies, we can harness the power of data in a way without an intrusion of privacy.

But until then, I keep having to ask myself where do I draw the line between convenience and invasion of privacy?


[1] Alice Marwick, “How Your Data Are Being Deeply Mined”

[2] Eli Pariser, “Beware online “filter bubbles””

[3]Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction