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Privacy Tradeoff and Permanence of the Web

Tue 15th May 2012

I am finally watching The Virtual Revolution (by Dr. Aleks Krotoski), and although I wasn’t really engaged by the first 2 episodes, the third (with a couple of brief appearances from WAIS’ own Prof. Nigel Shadbolt) raised the issue of free services being traded for masses of private data.

This issue interests me massively, as it relates to my PhD, and I recently did a student seminar presenting and discussing the ideas in Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble.

However, the reason I want to commit this to writing is that I want to ask a question: even once people realise their data is permanent on the Web, will they care and will their behaviour change? This third episode of The Virtual Revolution mentions that many Web users do not recognise that once they put something (information, photos, opinion, preferences) on the Web, that it is there forever. However, I think that even when people are digitally literate enough to know this, they will not care.

I personally do not care. I try not to say or do anything on the Web that I would not be willing to later defend. Maybe I have inadvertently, but even then I hope I would have some rational explanation for the context. Of course, I also know a few people who intentionally do not use many free Web services for fear of exposing themselves, so my claim is in no way scientific.

In this episode of The Virtual Revolution, Stephen Fry makes a very good point about risk-reward tradeoffs, which are mentioned throughout in relation to free services harvesting data. Fry reminds us that in the early days of automobiles, huge numbers of people were being killed due to the lack of safety in those early machines. However, despite this we still have cars. The reward was worth the risk. He also relates it to the risks from microwaves emitted by mobile phones. The reward outweighs the potential risk.

So, I guess the interesting next question is, have we ever been scuppered in history by seemingly beneficial risk-reward tradeoffs? A lot of people claim the users of the Web do not understand this tradeoff; however if they do understand but are just apathetic, what’s the worst that can happen?

  1. Huh! I hadn’t realised your PhD branches into these areas — nice. As you’ll have noted from my touching on the Filter Bubble stuff towards the end of my seminar this week, this is also an interest of mine (but more of a future-interests one than a “I have done a tonne of research here” one).

    • It only does tangentially. My PhD is on user modelling, so I think about the ramifications a lot. The user modelling system I have built, is sort of centralised for convenience, but I’d rather see each person run their own copy of it and point applications at the URL, so that everyone can own their own data!

      I did notice you use the same filter bubble picture that I used. We should have a chat about it sometime. I met some guys from a local web adserving company the other week, who were very keen on research into privacy of user’s data.

      • Yeah, let’s talk about it next time. Unusually, I’m back in town really soon, this Friday; you about then?

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