Do You Care About Privacy Or Just Unpleasant Surprises?

Seth Godin thinks that for all the talk about privacy, what people really object to is being “surprised.”

If your credit card company called you up and said, “we’ve been looking over your records and we see that you’ve been having an extramarital affair. We’d like to offer you a free coupon for VD testing…” you’d freak out, and for good reason.

If the local authorities start using what’s on the corner surveillance cameras to sell you a new kind of commuter token, you’d be a little annoyed at that as well.

He thinks that companies get away with invading our privacy by avoiding surprise, and we’re inclined to agree with him. After all, Facebook is still collecting data from “Beacon,” but since you can opt-out of the “news feed” surprise, people are happy.

Seth says:

This leads us to’s new Eraser service, which promises to not remember stuff about your searching. The problem they face: most people want Google and Yahoo and Amazon to remember their searches, because it leads to better results and (so far) rarely leads to surprises.

What do you think? Do people really care about privacy?

People don’t truly care about privacy [Seth Godin’s Blog] (Thanks, James!)


Edit Your Comment

  1. nutrigm says:

    Erasable searches (on the engine’s server) were dumb then, are dumb now, and will always be dumb in the future!

  2. christoj879 says:

    Agreed. I also think, on the grand scheme of things, many other people are looking at midget porn, cheating on their spouses, and committing white-collar crime that I don’t if somebody who doesn’t know me sees the details of my personal life.

  3. magic8ball says:

    For the record, I am still not happy about the Facebook beacon. I’m pissed off that Zuckerberg claimed you could “turn it off,” when all you’re really doing is opting out of the feed. I no longer patronize the businesses that are participating. The invasive nature of advertising annoys me, but I am somewhat concerned about privacy as well.

  4. savvy999 says:

    If one is at all concerned about privacy, then one should really not be on the intertubes at all.

    Nothing, and I mean NOTHING that is transmitted out of your computer is private on the web. Any expectation otherwise is ludicrous.

  5. cmac says:

    I’m not as concerned about the intended consequences of invasive advertising as I am about the unintended (newly devised) consequences that come along after I’ve opted-in.

    Data mining is highly profitable for a reason. I feel that if the-all-powerful “They” are profiting, I should too. Otherwise, I’m not for sale.

  6. Erskine says:

    @cmac: If the atire which you wear has a visible logo – you are already sold.

  7. DrGirlfriend says:

    I think it’s not an either-or question anymore. Tracking information can sometimes be helpful and for a non-nefarious purpose, such as with Google searches. Other times it’s just invasive, such as with Facebook’s Beacon. With the advent of the internet, which makes sharing information so easy, I don’t think we can expect to have complete privacy anymore.

    What I ask myself is if complete privacy is ultimately necessary. Sure, you may *want* complete privacy, but are there times when it’s not going to hurt you one way or another to not have it? Is it an unrealistic expectation at this point? The more I think about this issue, I think that there is a certain level of tracking that I am willing to put up with and not worry about. The problem is that you cannot give an inch without companies wanting to take a mile, and that’s what ultimately bothers me. My not caring too much about tracking *to a certain point* apparently means that I don’t care about any kind of tracking at all, which is not the case. I suppose it’s a calculated risk comapnies take by attempting to track so much of our information, but we’re still in the relatively early stages of this information-loaded day and age, so I suppose this is the time for people to pay attention and speak up when they feel that their privacy is actually being violated.

  8. HRHKingFriday says:

    @christoj879: Yes, and even if they are, they should be smart enough to use anonymous browsing features. Not that I condone things like that, but I really don’t care that it remembers I looked up “banana muffins” and “dentist reviews”.

  9. msthe8r says:

    It’s not so much marketing surprises I’m afraid of. Marketing doesn’t really surprise me any more.
    But if say, the credit card company called to say, “We see from your records that you’ve been having an extramarital affair. This puts you in imminent danger of divorce and its financial fallout. That increases our risk. Your APR is now 24.99%.”
    Or try this: local law enforcement arrives at your door with a warrant because your kid Googled “marijuana” for a school report.
    These are extreme examples, I know. But we’ve already seen how both government and private entities will take a mile, given only a fraction of an inch.

  10. youbastid says:

    @Erskine: Agreed – The only logo I ever wear visibly is the occasional sports team or band.

    @DrGirlfriend: I think it’s possible to love your grocery store savings club and hate AT&T at the same time. With the grocery store cards, for instance, I’m happy to give in to the kind of market research that is truly only there to measure buying habits of groups of people, as long as I get compensated in the form of discounts and useful coupons. I give them an inch, there’s really nothing more they can take – they don’t even have my name and address – just phone number. Tracking is OK with me if A) I opted in, and B) I benefit directly from it.

    Unfortunately, you can never, ever opt-out of any communications company’s privacy policy, whether you like it or not, and you receive zero benefit for giving them the pleasure. Not ok with me.

  11. Indecision says:

    Um… any unauthorized breach of privacy is going to be an “unpleasant surprise”, and any authorized breach of privacy will both never be a surprise, and is not really a “breach of privacy” anymore.

    The only breach that is both an actual breach of privacy *and* not an unpleasant surprise, is the one you don’t know about.

    So, this is really a flawed premise.

  12. jpp123 says:

    @YOUBASTID wrote “I give them an inch, there’s really nothing more they can take – they don’t even have my name and address – just phone number. Tracking is OK with me if A) I opted in, and B) I benefit directly from it.” – you do know for a very small fee the credit card companies will sell them your name and address to match against you card number right?

    To paraphrase Helen Keller “Privacy is mostly a superstition” – unless you live off the grid, pay cash for everything, subscribe to nothing and don’t interact with the government you really don’t have any privacy. Banks keep images of checks, credit card companies have transaction records, utility company bills say a lot about that grow room you have, EZ-pass/Fastrac systems know your commute, cell companies keep records of which tower your phone used (even if it’s a prepaid). Pretty much all of it is obtainable for the right price (legally or otherwise). You have no privacy – get over it.

  13. Skiffer says:

    It’s really a question of anonymity – a lack of which is the core cause of the “surprises”. In other words, all the data-mining is “anonymous” to us until company X calls us and “surprises” us.

    I don’t care if everything I do is broadcast to the world…but when somebody points out that it’s me doing X, that’s when I care.

  14. Balisong says:

    This is a silly semantic argument.

  15. Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg says:

    @youbastid: I give them an inch, there’s really nothing more they can take – they don’t even have my name and address – just phone number.

    If you have ever paid for one of those purchases with a credit card they most certainly do have your name, and it’s associated with that discount card.

  16. vladthepaler says:

    People who care about privacy are concerned with how information about them will be used (surprise or not). For example: I trust my family more than i trust the government, so it worries me less if my family knows things about me than it does if the government knows things about me. Concern about privacy is not a categorical fear of one’s personal information being outside one’s control, it’s a fear of such information being in the hands of untrusted parties.

  17. competentgirliegirl says:

    @YOUBASTID wrote “I give them an inch, there’s really nothing more they can take – they don’t even have my name and address – just phone number. Tracking is OK with me if A) I opted in, and B) I benefit directly from it.”

    I agree with you on the A and B aspect. However, I don’t know what part of the country you are in but here in the SW US, all grocery cards I signed up for required name, address, phone on the application form. I’m sure you may think they don’t have your address but I’m pretty sure they do have it. Even if you weren’t required to disclose your entire address on the form, I cannot imagine any marketing questionnaire not indexing your physical location if not by street address then at least by your zip code. All marketing analysis includes data manipulation by zip code — this greatly affects our insurance rates, prices of consumer goods and even gasoline. Ever notice how the wealthy sections of town have higher gas prices than the working class neighborhoods? This concept extends to grocery stores and all the rest. There is a little anomoly in that pricing scheme where the real poverty stricken neighborhoods actually have higher prices in some of these markets which is sad when you think of it. But overall, pricing is set via analysis by geographic location so I’m sure your grocery card issuers have yours recorded in some fashion.

  18. meeroom says:

    I always fake name my grocery cards. If I can’t get discounts without signing up, then I don’t shop there or just sign up as Fakey McFakerson or something. None of the stores I’ve been to have required more than a name and address, they’ve never asked to see ID.

  19. Murph1908 says:

    The problem with the grocery store cards is, you are not getting anything back from them. In fact, you are ultimately being charged more when you go to stores (out of town or otherwise) where you don’t have a card. The ‘savings’ you are getting from the cards are no better than the ‘sales’ they had before the cards.

  20. synergy says:

    I am actually concerned with privacy. It’s not a matter of whether I tell them if they can have it or not, but that they shouldn’t ask for stuff unless I volunteer it.

    What, search engines and tracking? I’m assuming that’s done with cookies maybe? You know, the cookies you can turn off?

  21. youbastid says:

    @Murph1908: Not necessarily true…for instance, this week, 4 boxes of any GM cereals costs a total of $4. Normal price is $4 a box most anywhere. Also, since I mainly shop at one store, I get a ridiculous amount of targeted coupons printed out every time I go in, which I use.

    To get my cards, I have used a combination of just phone numbers (if you insist, the cashier will take that), fake names, and splitting up the extra cards. When you sign up you usually get 3 or 4 cards – 2 big ones and two keychain sized ones. Divide that amongst your friends.

    I know everyone thinks they link the credit card you use to purchase to the card number. That’s feasible, but I’m not sure it’s true. I’ve seen a busy cashier use his or her card when someone else is in a rush and can’t find theirs. Is their credit card now linked to the cashier’s card as well as their own? What about when 10 other people use my card? Are all of their credit cards linked to mine? I don’t think so. One card can only have one number linked to it – because the grocery cards can also be used to get points with FF miles and dining rewards, and can give rewards to ONLY one card.

  22. Optimus says:

    @savvy999: Unless of course there is a Tor server in your on your local intertube node, in the case of Cable internet. But even then, they could set a sniffer on the node, and we’re talking about at most two neighborhoods per node in the sparsest of neighborhoods. It would have to be organized by the neighborhood in order to be effective, and then there’s the word of mouth hole.

  23. Copper says:

    @jpp123: As much as I would like to live off the grid, it seems useless in this country. If I want to live in a place that isn’t falling apart and doesn’t have roaches crawling all over, I have to submit to a credit check. If I don’t have decent credit or a cosigner, I’m not getting an apartment…even if you pay cash, don’t subscribe, etc., you’re still on “the grid” unless you live with friends/family or in a cave.

  24. loueloui says:

    This may be the most idiotic thing I have heard in quite a while. Companies do not get away with abusing peoples’ right to privacy because they avoid surprising people, they get away with it because either people are too lazy, or because the companies use their position in the market to dictate their terms.

    I am well aware of the privacy policies of several companies I use. Am I surprised by them? No. Do I agree with them? Hell no, but if I want cable TV, or internet or electricity, there’s not much I can do is there?

    My friends and family get annoyed with me when I refuse to give some store clerk my personal info. I usually tell them they can have my phone number if I can have their home phone number. It’s funny that it sounds so ludicrous when the situation is reversed, but the concept is the same -we’ve just been conditioned to accept it.

    Really, why is it so important for some haircut place to have my phone number? Are they going to call me and talk about my hair? How about Best buy, or Winn-Dixie? Got any calls from them lately? They wouldn’t be using this as a tool to track your purchases and attempt to manipulate your purchasing decisions would they? It’s funny the clerk kinda skips that part.

  25. STrRedWolf says:

    Didn’t Facebook completely yank the Beacon?

  26. fakezen says:

    @christoj879: You sound like my kind of guy. Call me.

  27. fakezen says:

    @christoj879: Or girl.

  28. DrGirlfriend says:

    I just don’t give out my number when asked for it by a cashier. Easy enough to work around that.

  29. UpsetPanda says:

    Firefox has a feature that erases all of your searches, passwords and history for that session. once you quit Firefox, it’s gone. I’ve found that it’s more or less 50/50 in success. I’ve closed it and opened it up again to see that there was a problem in deleting my info and it asks me if I want to start a new session or restore my previous one. If I restore, then voila, whoever is looking at the screen gets my e-mail account.

  30. zolielo says:

    Back when I worked for another governmental agency part of my job was to investigate fraud. Those involved in the investigations were part of a program by their own accord. An aspect of participating in this program was an allowance to what many would consider private information. With a bit of detective work, logic, luck , and data mining; I was able to piece together nearly every facet of the participant’s life. To keep those on the edge on the straight an narrow, a comparative advantage derived from asymmetric information was often used.