I am not generally opposed to tech companies tracking my activities and data. Most of the time I believe that the general purpose is to provide me a better experience. I do not set any of my browsers for private browsing by default and only use “safe browsing” techniques on mobile devices to keep me away from spam and botnets. I use an HTTPS connection whenever possible to make sure my user name and passwords are not being intercepted by nefarious third-party entities.
What I am sick of is that every time one of these privacy stories breaks, it is nobody’s fault. The script is the same: “we’re sorry, we didn’t mean to do it, we will shut it down right away.” You know what? It is everybody’s fault.
For instance, the most recent blow up is that Google and three other advertising networks were violating Apple’s Safari guidelines for third party cookies. Google issued a statement to Ars Technica saying that the tracking was completely unintentional and was a product of tying the “+1″ button to Safari to determine if a user was signed into his/her Google account. Apparently, the third-party advertising cookie running through doubleclick.net also accidentally made it through too.
Apple allows cookies in Safari across all of its devices. That can be first-party cookies from the homepage of a domain or certain social third-party cookies, like the ability to like something through Safari on Facebook. Cookies are used for important things, like remembering logins and password credentials. They are also used for delivering important outside information, like location-aware messages and advertising.
Apple wants this information as much as Google does. The more Apple knows about you, the more it can tailor your experience and keep you coming back to Apple for devices and services. Blocking third-party cookies in Safari is not some altruistic motive by Apple. It is a marketing gimmick and a way to shut out other services from accessing data that would be available elsewhere on the Web without Apple’s intervention.
Google wants the Web to be as open as possible to serve its purposes. Apple wants the Web to be as controlled as possible, providing a funnel about everything you do and everywhere you go back to Apple and/or its developer partners. To many, this has become a war against the “open” Web. Facebook has also been accused of this very same practice with its closed platform. Microsoft has long known everything you do through its Windows and Internet Explorer platform. Amazon wants to track you so it can provide better shopping data.
John Battelle sums up the nature of Safari in regards to his iPhone nicely when reacting to the Google tracking story:
Or perhaps it’s because Apple considers anyone using iOS, even if they’re browsing the web, as “Apple’s customer,” and wants to throttle potential competitors, insuring that it’s impossible to access to “Apple’s” audiences using iOS in any sophisticated fashion? Might it be possible that Apple is using data as its weapon, dressed up in the PR friendly clothing of “privacy protection” for users?
That’s at least a credible idea, I’d argue.
This is why I throw my hands up and say, “you know, screw it.” Every one of the tech companies has an agenda and each of them wants your personal data. Whether that is Path, Twitter, Foursquare or others uploading your contacts list without your consent or Google tracking your cookies or Apple tracking your location. Each is going to push the boundaries of what is perceived to be acceptable and when they get caught they are going to say “sorry, we’ll stop now.”
I am also a firm believer that the technology and the Web is not free. The foundation of the Web was built off of user data. User data keeps the Web gassed up and moving down the information super highway (as we used to call it in the 1990s). I do not mind giving up my cookies and a certain bit of my privacy for a better experience. Take Path for instance. After Path allegedly deleted all of the contacts it had automatically uploaded, it prompted me if I wanted to upload my contacts. I said yes. Because without doing that, Path would be a barren place to me and I would have no way of finding my friends on the platform.
What I am really trying to figure out when it comes to privacy decisions by technology companies is whether or not harm is being done. Is this going to hurt me now? Will it in the future? Will it hurt my friends and family? My greatest fear is that I am framed for a crime and all of my data on the Internet will be used against me. Or that someone will cause harm to me or my family financially or physically. Will the government take my data and make my life difficult? These are all legitimate fears.
I then ask myself when these “scandals” take place, who is being harmed? The media loves a big “my god, they did what?!” story. If we put it in perspective, this Google tracking Safari story is no big deal. They then shame the offending company until it apologizes and gets on with its life. The fact of the matter is that it does not really matter to the user to share in this shame and outrage because in the long run nothing is going to fundamentally change. Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple, Amazon, Path and all the rest are going to use our personal data however they want. We may cry privacy violations and they may apologize again. And again. And again.
That is why I say screw it. Screw the companies for setting up the system that perpetuates this mess, screw the media for making it a scandal every time, screw the users who let it happen. Everybody is to blame.
Use my data. I wash my hands of you and it. Just make for damn sure that no harm comes of it.
Because then, we would really have problems.