Trading Privacy for the Promise of Better

— May 22, 2017

What is privacy, when it comes to online behaviour? We live in a world where spy movies and TV shows convince us that we are always being monitored anyway – perhaps that is normalising our assumption about our own privacy.


When I have raised discussions on social media in the past, or in discussion forums, about the dangers of giving too much access to your own information, the response has been a bit, “meh”.


On one hand, people are quite adept at controlling what information is published in public – managing the privacy of their posts, pruning friend lists and using the privacy settings of sites like Facebook to maintain some level of control.


On the other hand, as a general population, we give permission for software to access anything we do on our phone. We have no control over what the large companies do with the data we give them access to.


In November 2016, the Investigatory Powers Act gave UK government the “most sweeping surveillance powers in the western world“. In fact, the Act only made clearer what intelligence agencies are not allowed to do as well as what they are allowed to do – they were trying to do a lot of it before the Act was passed.


Put this into the context of Facebook, Twitter, even Google. These commercial enterprises survive on advertising revenue and their ability to connect the dots in data means they can increase their earning potential. Advertisers naturally want to pay more for more qualified potential customers.


Twitter recently changed its privacy settings


Twitter has announced changes to its privacy settings (which it refers to as personalisation settings) because it now offers more personalised adverts. This is described to the user as a better experience because adverts will be tailored to the user.


I know, right? Advertisers think we WANT to see adverts, interrupting our experience. They think that we will be happy because those adverts are tailored to our interests. I’ll skip past that and say this – what Twitter is saying is that it is gathering more intelligence about us.


Everything you look at, click on, comment on – it all helps Twitter to build a picture of the kind of person you are. You then become part of a cohort that an advertiser can pay to reach.


The trade-off for doing this is that Twitter has to offer us some control. Here’s a view of the new privacy settings on Twitter.



  • Personalize ads. If selected, you will see interest-based ads on and off Twitter.
  • Personalize based on your apps. If selected, Twitter will view and store the apps on your devices to help show you more relevant content. Twitter won’t see any data from within the apps.
  • Personalize across all your devices. Twitter will always personalize across the devices you’ve used to log in. If you disable this setting, Twitter will forget that you’ve used other devices.
  • Personalize based on the places you’ve been. Twitter always uses some information, like where you signed up and your current location, to help show you more relevant content. This setting lets Twitter personalize based on other places you’ve been.
  • Track where you see Twitter content across the web. These web page visits are not stored or used when you’re in certain countries.
  • Share data through select partnerships. This setting lets Twitter share certain private data (which will never include your name, email, or phone number) through select partnerships. Partners have agreed not to link your name, email, or phone number to data shared through these partnerships without first getting your consent.

Facebook trying to get into everything


I recently deleted the Facebook Messenger app from my phone because it keeps trying to take over my SMS app. The last thing I want is Facebook trying to make connections between my phone contacts and my Facebook contacts.


The people I connect with on Facebook, I choose to connect with. If I use my phone to send an SMS to someone who I don’t interact with on Facebook, I don’t want Facebook, like some sociopathic interloper, trying to connect us on Facebook.


This, like many other apps, all relies on our blind acceptance.


Why give full access just for a new feature?


YouTube recently changed its permission settings when it added a new feature allowing users to skip forwards or backwards by ten seconds when watching videos.


This change required an app update, which also required the user to accept the update. Users were also asked to give permission for the app to access other data on the phone – why?


We’re living in a world where we give away permission so easily to things we don’t understand, and we accept it because we want better – better apps, better technology, better access to information.


It all comes down to trust


I auto-update most apps on my phone. I stay logged into Facebook and Google and Twitter. I know I am giving these same permissions away, but I know the majority of it is for commercial reasons. If Facebook wants to sell more ads on the basis of me liking something, so be it (See my other post – Is advertising more important than user experience?).


What it comes down to is trust. Do I trust that that is all they are doing? If they use my data for the same purpose I give it to them, that’s fine. If they use my data to interrupt others, or in some other corrupt way, they lose my trust.

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Author: Steve Masters


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