Trading in your privacy

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No-one wants to lose their privacy, but most seem willing to exchange it for something. Access to communities, perceived security or even goods and services are all things people are willing to trade their information and privacy for.

The real question is how much and for what. Friends and acquaintances need personal information to maintain relationships; Facebook requires it for access to their platform. An email address is standard currency for admittance into most social websites and Google uses location, search history and much more to provide a more meaningful search tool and more relevant ads.

Google’s newest product, Google Instant, also relies on this user data. The live blog of the launch event posted on Readwriteweb.com hinted at past user searches being used to generate SERPs as the user enters their query for very real performance benefits.

How does Google scale this? Optimizations: prioritizes searches that are the most likely. Checks if users is doing searches on another server. Results cached.

Where this deal breaks down is if the information is used in a way the user was not expecting. Entering an email address to post a comment is no big deal, but if it is then used to distribute spam, there is a problem. This surprise and betrayal of expectations is a large part of why Facebook’s users reacted badly to most of the site’s changes, and the same again with Google Buzz. The other issue is a lack of universal agreed value.

One degree from evil

It is the fluid nature of these transactions that has created campaigns and conversations like these. One of the more interesting exchanges was between this defense of Google and this subsequent rebuttal.

Users will always exchange their private information for benefits. How much they are willing to give up will vary from person to person. One thing is consistent though: expectations for how the information will be used need to be set, managed and met, or they might find that what you have is just not worth the price.

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