Why to Care About Privacy After Years of Sharing Data
I have a thought experiment for you. Pretend you’re driving somewhere local. A friend’s house, your favorite store, the office, whatever. You’re on autopilot, you’re not really paying attention. You reach a stop sign, take a left, and keep going. After about five or ten minutes, you snap out your highway hypnosis and go “oh wait, this isn’t the way to get where I’m going. This is the way to get to [another place I frequent]!” Do you just keep going?
The answer is “of course not!” That’s totally ridiculous. If you know you’re doing something wrong, why would you keep doing it? And yet, that’s exactly what many people ask. A common pushback against privacy is “well they’ve already got so much data about me already, would changing now really do any good?” The answer is a instant, emphatic “yes” and I can think of two good reasons for this.
The first reason is related to the thought experiment I shared above: it’s a matter of ethics. If you’re doing something wrong out of ignorance, personally I think there’s no shame in that. But once you know better, continuing to do it wrong is a choice, and usually a bad one. What I’m about to say may be unbelievable to some readers: I used to be deep in the Big Tech data sharing ecosystem. I never changed the presets on my devices. I filled out every single field given to me like address, birthday, and favorite quote even when it wasn’t required. I posted every thought and accomplishment on Facebook. Yup, that’s right, I had a Facebook. This is one reason privacy matters so much to me: I was wrong and now I “see the light.” Once I realized I was doing it wrong, I couldn't in good conscience keep doing the same thing.
If I can change, so can you. And frankly, so should you. It’s a matter of principle. It’s like when you meet someone new and mishear their name. “Hi Toby, nice to meet you. Oh, Tony? My bad.” You don’t wouldn’t keep calling them Toby after that. You wouldn’t keep driving down the wrong street. You don’t keep using the pot that’s too small to cook the pasta in after realizing that the bigger pot works better. It’s really not complicated. “Oops, I was doing this wrong before, I should do it right.” There’s no shame in admitting you were wrong. In fact, that’s a sign of growth and maturity, and it acknowledges that things change. If I never admitted I was wrong, my site would be full of misinformation and outdated tools. Doubling down is just immature and stubborn.
The other reason to change is much more pragmatic: the data gets stale. For my readers who are at least thirty years old, pause for a moment to reflect on the “you” of ten years ago. (For my readers under thirty, perhaps only jump back five years.) Now stop cringing and come back to me. Chances are that there were parts of you that changed. Maybe the “stop cringing” joke a moment ago doesn’t apply – as a child I was always a pretty mature, well-behaved kid, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t say or do dumb things that I look back on and go “wow, I’m so glad I moved on.” Maybe it was a bad emo or goth phase (no shame if it wasn’t a phase, rock on), maybe it was something you used to believe or think (when I was little my siblings somehow convinced me I was born at Disneyland), or maybe it was the people you used to hang out with or the job you used to work. You changed. You grew, and you (hopefully) made yourself a better person. The data you produced back then – your favorite band, your home address, your social circle – those have all changed.
Really think about that for a moment. Where did you live ten years ago? Who were you dating? What was your nightly routine like? I’d bet money that 99.9% of people reading this will admit that they are a pretty different person now than they were back then. Now to be fair, 99.9% of people also haven’t dramatically changed. Maybe you were and still are conservative, or a jokester, or an activist, or a big sports junkie. But I’m willing to bet that you’ve changed enough that you’d consider yourself “a different person.” The exact differences may vary, but you know that there’s a distinct difference between you and that person, even if it’s just maturity and experiences.
There's serious reasons this might matter, like letting the past be in the past. In some cases, your profile built by ad companies to sell you stuff can make letting go of the past nearly impossible, like if you’re a recovering alcoholic who keeps seeing alcohol ads. I wish I’d kept the original story I saw this in, but regardless: a little bit of searching had no trouble turning up multiple stories of recovering alcoholics being served ads for drinks, and one story I found in the course of this search even talked about ads reminding you of dead loved ones, eating disorders, miscarriages, and more. If you’re trying to move on from a dark point in your past, lack of privacy will make this nearly impossible. Privacy helps you grow and become a new person. Continuing to drive down the wrong street won’t make this growth any easier, and won’t let you deal with your trauma on your own terms: you can only do that by turning around and going the right way.
For many, change is hard and scary. Fear of the unknown is a real thing. I have never started a new job and not felt some degree of anxiety, even if I was 100% sure it was the right move. Fear of the unknown has kept us alive as a species. But we evolved, and so must you as an individual. You have to conqueror your fear of change and be willing to make changes. It might be hard at first. It was hard for me to learn how to not just post every thought I had for the whole world to see. I had to completely retrain myself on how I interact with my friends and family without Facebook. But in the end, it can be done. Whatever those companies know about me now is only a fraction of what they knew before, and much of what they knew before is no longer true. I no longer have those same social circles, that same fashion sense, the same relationship patterns, or even work in the same industry. Change is inevitable and natural, so don’t fear it. Embrace it and the potential it brings to make your life better. Change to a life where you are in control of your direction.