Wednesday, 15 August 2012 20:05

You have zero privacy. Get over it. Featured

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Is the concept of privacy dead in the digital age? It looks increasingly so.

Sun’s Scott McNealy famously (or infamously) said in 1999, in response to a journalist’s question, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

If he was right then, he is even righter now. The concept of personal privacy, at least in the digital world, is looking increasingly tenuous. Google, the company whose informal corporate motto is “Don’t be evil,” is one off the biggest culprits.

Google has been asked to take down Street View data all around the world, and just this week was fined $22.5 million for tracking users of Apple’s Safari browser (serves them right for using Safari, I reckon).

And Facebook’s approach to privacy is virtually non-existent. But users of that and other social networking sites are often their own worst enemies, and have only themselves to blame for the consequences.

Every time some privacy breach occurs, every time a hacker steals credit card data, every time a company sends all its clients all its other clients’ details, every time a government official leaves a laptop in a cab, we hear complaints about breaches of privacy.

Fact of the matter is, Scott McNealy was right. It is in the nature of the digital world that privacy will be breached. All the technology and all the laws and all the safe business practices in the world will not negate human stupidity, greed or malevolence. Privacy breaches will continue to occur.

Many people are worried about this. They act as if privacy is some God-given right. In fact it is a comparatively recent construct in human history, and then only for wealthier people in the Western world.

It’s pretty hard to have any privacy when you sleep and eat and procreate in the same room as nine people and a goat. What we regard as a basic human right is to most people who have ever lived an unimaginable luxury.

If you are really worried about privacy there’s a lot you can do, like not have credit cards or be involved in loyalty schemes or the like, like Mr Badness on Underbelly. But for most of us the convenience of all that stuff outweighs the inconvenience of having our precious privacy compromised.

Does it matter? On some levels, yes. None of us like to know that too many people know too much about what we are up to. We most of us have nasty little secrets.

But in the bigger picture, most concerns about privacy are misplaced. It is one of those prices of progress that we hear about occasionally. Every technology has a downside. We haven’t outlawed cars because people die in motor accidents, just as we didn’t prohibit fire when people got burnt.

It goes with the territory, as they say. By all means try to safeguard privacy by various means, but don’t be surprised or upset when those safeguards don’t work.

It’s best not to get too hung up over this privacy thing. You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.

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Graeme Philipson

Graeme Philipson is senior associate editor at iTWire. He is one of Australia’s longest serving and most experienced IT journalists. He is author of the only definitive history of the Australian IT industry, ‘A Vision Splendid: The History of Australian Computing.’

He has been in the high tech industry for more than 30 years, most of that time as a market researcher, analyst and journalist. He was founding editor of MIS magazine, and is a former editor of Computerworld Australia. He was a research director for Gartner Asia Pacific and research manager for the Yankee Group Australia. He was a long time weekly IT columnist in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and is a recipient of the Kester Award for lifetime achievement in IT journalism.