How Private Should Data Be?

Several years ago when traveling through Germany a friend of mine watched me open up my email account: “You use Gmail? I expected more from you. Don’t you know how dangerous this is?” I quite honestly had no frame of reference with which to receive his shock. From the earliest days when Google was only a search engine I preferred it both to Yahoo and to Msn.com and my appreciation for the (free) tools offered by Google only grew to love it as time passed and Google grew into a full blown behemoth. My friend informed me of the dangers of Google and the perils it could potentially could/would pose to users—a treasure trove of information far exceeding that which Hitler had access to in Nazi Germany when citizens had to suffer the consequences of the data associated with their names. For these reasons, Gmail has not been made available in Germany, being that the privacy settings that Google operates with do not meet the criteria established by the German government. All in all, because of Germany’s tragic history its citizens evince a deep abiding concern in the use and misuse of personal data. I have to admit myself I found it strange and somewhat concerting when I spent some time in café not too long ago and a cameraman contracted by Google set up a tripod  and began digitizing us without even asking whether we approved.

At the moment Representative Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California, has been preparing a new legislation titled “Do Not Track” which will give consumers the opportunity not to have any of their information collected before they begin navigating the sites. The efficacy with which Google, Facebook, Amazon and others have been able to target users with ads based on their navigational history and other online behavior could radically alter how the online business world communicates with consumers. If as the late great French historian of philosophy Michel Foucault pronounced, “knowledge is power,” than who could be greater than Google with whom the greater portion of the globe has opened an account in their information bank. Imagine the nuclear explosion of a wiki-type-leak in Google’s servers.

And yet the tools of web 2.0 have streamlined our lives in a marvelous and unimagined way, bringing together consumers and producers, users and providers, individuals and communities in ways that even language has hitherto been unable to do. My Netflix suggestions have only served me positively by introducing me to movies I would never enjoy otherwise; so who am I to say they should stop serving me?

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