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Three corporate giants, Google, Microsoft and Wal-Mart, are a huge part of the current social, technological and legal environment making personal privacy in a digital age very difficult. I have no problem with the business model of the companies nor their behavior in general, after all, I like a success story. But they all engage in practices which erode the ability of individuals to remain private.
Google, Microsoft and Wal-Mart Engage In Privacy Eroding Practices
Google is well known as the company that keeps track of everything that anybody does. This task is made much easier for them because so many people use Google products on a daily basis. The reason why Google has this power is because their products are very useful and incredibly well designed. Although monetarily free, there is a cost to using them. That cost is the price of your privacy. Google’s business model relies on the information they gather about you to allow advertisers to target their ads where they will be most effective. Thus they keep vast historical records on every user, creating profiles that describe the users more accurately than their own mother could.
Microsoft has recently stepped into the ring with Google by offering Bing as another web search product. Bing collects information on each user just like Google does.
Wal-Mart is one of the first retailers to start heavily using RFID technology. RFID are small radio tags affixed to products that companies often use for various reasons, including to track inventory efficiently. Although we are still years away from being able to scan a home from the street and see just what products are inside, the potential privacy issues are concerning.
Impact On Privacy Of Business Practices Of Google, Microsoft And Wal-Mart
I do not think any one of these practices of Google, Microsoft or Wal-Mart is inherently bad. They are inherently neutral. Some people may like having Google and Bing know all about them in order to improve the ease of their information gathering. Some people might like to be able to walk through an RFID detector at the store which will automatically detect all of the products they are buying along with their payment info without ever waiting in a line. But along with that convenience comes the potential for misuse of the data gathered in their transactional databases. That is where maintaining your privacy becomes important.
It doesn’t matter what any company or government entity does with the information that is collected. Even if the company itself does nothing to compromise your private data that it collects, someone else might. Even banks in the US are required to disclose significant information on account holders and are prohibited by law from protecting the privacy of customers. The future of organized crime is in information, so there is greater risk to having your information stored in vast databases. Those databases where the information is stored can always be hacked, the information can be sold, or it can be subpoenaed.
Loose Data Is A Loaded Gun
In a landmark Supreme Court case, US v. Korematsu, the Supreme Court ruled that classifications based on race were justified given the threats posed by war. The ruling made the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II legal. This case has never been directly overturned and stands, ready to be used as precedent in a future case. Having this decision stand as legal precedent is like leaving a loaded gun unattended, ready to be fired in the future without knowing the potential damage. The information that is gathered on individuals by these three private companies whose gross revenues far exceed the GDP of many nations is another loaded gun lying relatively untouched for now. We do not know exactly how the weapon of this information will be discharged in the future, but it may be uncomfortable.
Letting The Fox Guard The Hen House
The FTC held discussions on the future of online privacy and the CEO’s of Google, Microsoft and Wal-Mart were all invited to take part in the debate. What is the significance of having the CEO’s of these three companies offer an opinion on privacy to the FTC? It is like asking the fox how he wants the hen-house guarded. All of these companies have a business model that depends on the availability of information. Limiting information limits their profits. I do not blame them for wanting to collect this information on everyone, they make more money that way, but some people do not like it and should be able to take steps to avoid it.
In the mean time, while the foxes’ influence on the legal environment is not absolute, we can still take certain measures to protect our hens of information from the foxes that prey on those hens. Using anonymous web surfing practices you can avoid paying the cost (in terms of privacy) of using Google’s and Bing’s free (in terms of dollars) search engines and other products. Shopping anonymously using cash and other anonymous shopping cards can also keep your information from falling prey to the Wal-Mart fox.
Google, Microsoft and Wal-Mart are not evil, as long as you have the freedom to avoid divulging your private information to eat, work and live. Their information gathering does act like leaving a loaded gun on the table, for someone, anyone in the future to use to harm you. You can avoid losing your hens to the fox if you use proper privacy practices that you can find in the book How To Vanish.