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Is Privacy an Outmoded Concept?

We were followed when we went into New York City last weekend.

As we approached the Broadway theater district in our car, my cell phone began buzzing on the console. I ignore my phone while driving but Patti picked it up. It was Capital One calling. Well, texting anyhow. They wanted me to know that I could use my Capital One card to park in the lot just down the block on the right.

I realized Capital One also knew exactly what time we had triggered the Lincoln Tunnel toll-booth charge as we crossed the Hudson River into Manhattan. And would soon know where we had eaten lunch before the play, which play we went to, and whether we stopped to refuel our car on the way home.

And after we got home, I suppose Alexa who apparently monitors our behavior in our bedroom would later be recording what time I had asked her to play some Mel Tormé for twenty minutes to lull us to sleep. And almost certainly would suggest that Amazon offer me digitally remastered versions of his 50’s classics.

How silently and subtly the surveillance web all around us has been woven. And how swiftly. This 24/7 instantaneous tracking is but a couple of decades old, thanks to emergence of the internet, GPS, and “big data”.

Data-based marketing is not a new idea, of course. My partner Mitch and I were commissioned by Sears to create a diversification strategy for them back in the early 80s. As we studied the mindset, resources, and possibilities for this massive company that, at the time, was patronized by 83% of U.S. households every single year, we were struck by the vast extent of their data on customers’ purchasing history. So, hey, we thought, if some folks bought a bassinet and diapers last year, they probably need a crib this year, and a tricycle next year! Sears ought to just study these patterns and calculate specific new marketing overtures to them accordingly.

(But our assignment was focused elsewhere, and apparently so was Sears. How else could the company that originated remote-catalog buying utterly blow their presumably inevitable evolution into the colossus that Amazon became.)

Anyhow, the question on the table is whether or not companies' 24/7 detection of our every action and thought is already fait accompli, and “privacy” is forever a quaint but outmoded notion. Is privacy forever compromised? Are our lives now so transparent, our every physical and financial gesture and electronic communication so instantaneously observed, analyzed, and recorded, that we have no hope of living in privacy?

Is it okay that Google and Facebook capture not only adults’ habits and communications but even the content of schoolchildren’s online homework, the better to track their moods and vulnerability and receptivity? Will our well-intended online “rating” of a doctor rat out the very fact of our disease? Who might pay to know that? Will our computer screens forever intercept us with tempting offers based on that information, or on some purchase or internet inquiry we once made?

If this is the new reality, how much does it matter? Should we just accept it and move along? Or should we be learning to fight it and reverse it, marshaling our defenses, and making whatever adjustments we can to retain whatever shards of privacy still remain and are important to us?

I have no wisdom to offer on the decimation of privacy (or anything else, I suppose.) It's an issue that's been in the news for while now, but I've never "experienced" it quite like last weekend. The Daley Almanac is primarily a way for me to wonder out loud about things that are just now capturing my attention, in hopes that readers might welcome the chance to notice them, too, and maybe offer some feedback based on their own experience with whatever’s at hand.

And so I’m going to conclude this post without any big finale. If you want more on the subject, I recommend turning to the very readable writings of Shoshana Zuboff, Ph.D., professor emerita of Harvard Business School, who is a preeminent thinker/author on tech-related privacy. (Many others are writing on this issue as well, of course, and numerous organizations are working to deal with it.)

Zuboff’s NYT bestselling book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” (2019) is a daunting, weighty, passionate 705-page assessment of how the tracking of our daily behaviors has become the chief asset of profit-making enterprises, offered for sale to those who would manipulate not only our purchasing behavior but our feelings and mindsets and decision-making.

My regular readers know I’m no conspiracy theorist, but some things like this do jolt me. Zuboff’s depiction of the systemic undressing of our lives is like a ride in a glass-bottom boat. She clearly reveals what predatory creatures dwell beneath the glassy surface of the unbelievably vast sea we float upon during our ostensibly superficial but patently oblivious use of the internet.

Now, I realize that in our grab-and-go, sound-bite world, few of us are eager to plunge into a 704-page non-fiction book that’s likely to distress us page after page. So I offer the following link to a recent interview with Zuboff that may function as a sort of teaser you can nosh on. Whether you decide afterward that the near-extinction of our privacy matters enough to pursue the issue further is, as always, entirely up to you.

PS: It’s way too late to pull down the shades. You surely realize that somebody somewhere already knows you just read this post and is adding it to your profile. 🙄

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