Broadband Has Turned Our Homes into Glass Houses

We’re adding broadband connections to our televisions, phones, tablets, and video game consoles these days, to the point that we expect such connections in almost everything we own. While superconnectivity is mostly great, it’s also scary, because it can turn what were once private habits, such as reading a book or answering e-mail, into something public—in some cases, without our knowledge.

That lets advertisers track our activities better to offer personalized ads. Thanks to more gadgets with a Web connection, we all live in glass houses where friends, neighbors, and advertisers can see what we’re up to. What’s worse is that the records of our daily activities aren’t a transitory blip; they’re kept for months on end and can be searched, resold, or shared.

Sure, your glass house has a great view of the world, and the ability to let your friends know what TV show you’re watching so they can share the experience is nice. But sometimes—perhaps for no other reason that a desire to be alone—you might want to close the drapes.

I place high value on the notion of privacy. It disturbs me to find that Amazon might be sharing my highlighting of Kindle books with the world, not because I’m learning how to make a bomb or reading Harlequin romance novels, but because reading is a private activity. I’m disturbed when a company such as Facebook, which is already pushing my comfort zone on privacy, says one thing but is apparently doing another.

If we’re going to live in glass houses, here’s what we need as connected consumers:

Transparency: Services shouldn’t say one thing but do another. Nor should they explain what they share in convoluted or complicated terms. And given how fast things change online, when privacy policies are amended, users need to be explicitly told.

Standards: We need the companies that want to use and share our information to agree on terms and market the heck out of those terms as a means to educate consumers. IP addresses, for example, are generally considered anonymous, but they can be traced back to a household. Consumers need to know that. They also need to get a real sense of other potentially invasive ways tech can track users and understand which of those ways matter. Having a unified approach to entering and storing data would also help, because it would enable users to move their information to other providers and perhaps shop around on the basis of privacy.

Control: We’re in many ways having the wrong debate over privacy. Most people don’t know what’s being shared, which means they don’t know what to do about it; instead, they just freak out. If you give people information in a standardized format, suddenly they can have control—they can decide what to share and with whom.