Banking on Our Privacy

Privacy is something we lose actively, not passively. Listen to the verbs of our digital lives:

  • We browse the web and Google.
  • We tweet and Twitter.
  • We socially connect and Facebook.
  • We move around the world as mayors on Foursquare.
  • We charge our purchases on credit cards.
  • We share our favorite places to dine, shop and travel on Blippy.

Monthly all of this financial activity aggregates to us as a one-way mirror on PageOnce and Mint (now Intuit), disembodied from the holistic view the world at large sees of us. For in microseconds, dozens of web service businesses peek in on and trawl our digital life patterns to fish-find and cast out a targeted digital hook for our next GroupOn or similarly emailed or blogosphere offering. Our multifunction cellphones continually transmit our location, feelings, spending, photos and other digital evidence of our lives, 24/7, 365 days per year, forever.

Did we really think the Internet/Web was free? Didn't we understand that the privacy we lost, paid for the Web as we know it? And even with our bargained-away privacy, did we really think the digital democracy or net neutrality would endure, with ISPs self-disciplined enough not to discriminate and grope whose packets of information should be sent fast, whose slow and ultimately whose should not be sent at all? (Constitutional limits on free speech and freedom of assembly do apply to the cyber-world, just like the physical world. Such rulings are for an independent judiciary (!) to decide as a matter of civil society law, not for commercial interests to define for profit-making purposes).

Companies like RapLeaf, are aggregating our digital lives to see what the holistic sense of it means for businesses. Already employers and college entrance offices are mining social media for clues about candidate's lives.

This data in its aggregate form poses a unique opportunity and source of confusion for banks and financial institutions.

Should a banker decide whether you're a good credit risk because your Facebook or LinkedIn friends seem to be? What if you work with people in the nonprofit or developing world so that your friends are, on balance, not Americans with FICO scores and spending patterns to be mined, do you deserve a better or worse interest rate by association? Do your friends who are rich make you a better credit risk, in having to keep up with their spending habits? Do your friends who are of moderate means make you a worse credit risk in feeling like you too can live modestly? Would an ethical banker show you the Web data she has available on you, and ask your critique of its (illusory and conclusory) findings? Should you have to defend your life in this way for purposes of borrowing to buy a home, finance an education, start a business or provide for your children's medical or other needs? Is that now our freedom, the right to defend against the corporately secret, mobbed up view of the soup of our digital detritus?

And what of geospatial identity? Since 80% of business intelligence has an address, zip code or other place-based data field to be mined, does the adage "we know where to find you" become a more ominous privacy incursion threat? Can place be used as the common denominator to reassemble disaggregated individual life patterns, beyond law enforcement investigation techniques, so that our very lives are mapped out publicly and mined for purposes of commercial tiered pricing, terms, sale and resale?

Is this all paranoia? Have we reached George Orwell's Big Brother crescendo in America and other developed countries, where corporations and government know more about us in the aggregate than our friends and family? Is it a futile race to the bottom to try to think that the more causes I tag on Facebook, the fewer I actually am perceived to support?

The humanist in me wonders, is knowing so much about each other resulting in a similar uptick in caring for and providing for each other's life cycles, our ups and downs? Do the massive multiplayer game world or the games on Facebook raise as much philanthropic and social investment as their use of guns, killing and socially destructive behaviors? Could this imbalance change? I hope so.

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