I’ve Chosen Convenience Over Privacy

Posted Sunday, April 24th, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Back when I got my Palm Prē, I noticed that it wanted to store various of my information on Google’s servers. I thought I’d kept it from doing so; I sure wasn’t using Gmail on a regular basis. I configured the Prē’s email client to check my own account on mactane.org, and I thought everything was fine.

Eventually, I gave up on the Prē and switched to my current, Android-powered Samsung Epic. I figured I was in for a boring day of transferring my contacts over manually… until I discovered that many of them had been synced to my Gmail account, and so they showed up in my new phone without me having to do anything.

Considering all the work I had to go to in order to get my to-do list items, memos and notes transferred over manually… I decided that having stuff transfer automatically was actually pretty damn cool. Since I got my Epic, I’ve been picking “Save contact to Google” whenever I create a new contact. So, if I accidentally drop my phone on the street and it gets run over by an 18-wheeler and then the fragments get kicked into the bay and sink to the bottom, I can just buy a new Android phone and have all my contacts “magically” appear there.

On the other hand, all my contacts are sitting on Google’s servers.

My lover uses Google Calendar. I’ve now started using it myself, and we have three calendars: mine, hers, and a shared calendar for stuff that both of us want to do. Either of us can edit events on all three calendars, so that if, for example, she asks me to make a phone call on her behalf and set up a doctor’s appointment, I can just add the event to her schedule.

Once again, I’ve traded away privacy in order to gain some convenience.

Since this is a shift away from my previous choices about privacy, I’ve been feeling a little uncomfortable about it. I’d like to note, however, that while it’s a different choice from my previous ones, it doesn’t represent a fundamental shift in my stance on privacy. That stance has always been that:

  1. Individual privacy is a fundamental human right. Those who want to take it away, or intimidate us into giving it up, are to be distrusted.
  2. If someone offers to exchange something for our privacy, on the other hand — as a free market transaction — then we have the choice to accept or decline.

Google’s offered me something in return for my privacy: They make my life more convenient. The only weird part is that I used to decline such offers. Why am I accepting now? (Is it just because I’ve gotten older and tireder? There are only so many times you can manually copy information from one device to another before you say, “Screw this, I’ll take the easy option!”)

And then, just to remind me of why I usually don’t accept such offers, the news came out: In addition to iOS devices, Android phones also collect location data and send it back to its corporate headquarters.

It seems that using a modern, mainstream smartphone at all subjects you to the kind of privacy invasions I’ve never before accepted on my server or desktop platforms. On the other hand, my phone means that I’ve got a tiny, portable, full-featured computer in my pocket. Mine runs SSH and SCP clients as well as the more usual apps; if I had to, I could use it to do remote maintenance on my server or web sites. That’s something I actually can’t do with my work-supplied laptop (whose corporate security policies keep it from doing any kind of outbound port-22 connections).

I seem to have chosen convenience over privacy. And I’m not sure how I feel about that. But I keep being reminded of the Dead Kennedys’ album, “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death“. That’s not a comforting thought. It isn’t supposed to be.

One Comment

  1. Lun Esex
    Posted Sunday, April 24th, 2011 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    I’ve accepted some degree of lack of privacy, but I at least try to keep various things in separate silos, if I can. So: Google knows what I’ve searched (to some degree; I don’t have a Google account, so they only know what’s been searched from my IP addresses), but not my email, contacts, calendar, or other documents. Yahoo and my ISP have my email, but nothing else. Twitter has my public status updates. Facebook has my social graph and copies of my status updates, which are public anyway; they have some photos of me, but aside from my main profile pic they’re only photos uploaded by others. Apple has the contacts and notes on my phone, and some anonymized location data, but that’s all. The only place I’ve publicly posted photos myself is via Twitpic.

    Now whether spreading my eggs out into different baskets like this is effective in maintaining some greater degree of privacy is debatable, but at least it feels better to not have all of my data in a single company’s pocket. I *do* have some amount of confidence that in the name of competition these various major corporations aren’t especially intent on intentionally sharing my data with each other behind my back. They’re also not so likely to merge or buy each other out anytime soon (with the posible exception of Twitpic).

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