Data Privacy Ethics

The ethics of privacy in the tech world seems to gets buzz and news coverage only when (a) there isn’t a big product release +/- 2 weeks and (b) if there’s a major data security failure. One question I might ask is whose responsibility is privacy in the digital world? Is it up to the consumer, the product developer, or the government? I’d argue that it’s two-fold. It’s imperative that product developers recognize and take into consideration the impact of privacy features on the consumer and society at large. Taking a state consequentialist viewpoint, a new product developer should recognize how their product contributes to the social harmony of the state. Consider a plurality of outcomes, but the gist should be does my action result in the greatest good for the greatest number of constituents?

Most consumers are probably unaware of how much of their data is tracked. Every visit to a website (including Facebook, Google, and CNN) leads to a data point which web marketers can use to better target their ads/product. So WWGD? Google has a link in their footer ‘Privacy + Terms.’ The good news is that for a site that strives for simplicity, they’ve done the same with their legal docs. The idea is ‘One policy, one Google experience’ and that means you only have to read one very long (~ 6 pg.) Privacy Policy to understand what Google is truly up to. Of course, you may also want to read the content within the other 7 links they reference, but that might just be an un-streamlined user experience. The facts are that Google does track all the data they can about you and not just on Google properties (check this out: http://donttrack.us/). They rely on the data to drive advertising revenue. Curious how much Google’s advertising revenue matters? For Q2 2012 total advertising revenue was $10.5B and total revenue for the quarter was $12.2B, in other words about 86% of Google’s revenue comes from your data.

So what’s to be done? I’d argue that it’s up to the product management team and marketers that approve site content to do a few things. First, and foremost, protect your data. There’s no reason your data should be accessible by 3rd parties or ever sold to unauthorized groups. Site data should never be used maliciously to segment users in a way that diminishes their online experience in any manner. It should be possible for users to understand how their data is used if they are interested. Google provides an incredibly valuable service to billions of users and their site is most effective when users give up data privacy. The bigger and better their algorithms get, the more they can target relevant ads and sites to you during each search query. If you don’t give up data, you’re back to the world of askjeeves.com where you’re totally reliant on users to understand what site you’re looking for. So, the net take-away is that Google is in a sticky situation. They need users to give up their web data (and enjoy doing it) while ensuring it’s safe and mostly private.