TOC From Trust to Bust Your Turn

October 2, 2007

According to Andrew Morris (*), "we need [...] less hysteria and more common sense about internet privacy issue". I cannot agree more. But common sense comes out of long experience, currently in short supply. Also consider that common sense and hysteria are by no means polar opposites. The recent run on Northern Rock was a good example of what I called rational paranoia.

If the person in charge feels obliged to tell you "your money is safe", it is a clear signal to rush and withdraw it. The more Google and Facebook want me to know "my personal data is safe", the more I worry about my privacy. Instead of spewing spin, their CEO's should ceaselessly ponder what mechanism put in place lest an accident plunge their companies from trust to bust.

The matter is, people cheat. Worse, as Drake Bennett warned us (**), they even "cheat when they don't have to". True, Internet users are lazy and will dismiss any inconvenient truth for as long as they can. But this is more problem than cure for it lulls personal data aggregators into a sense of false security.

The issue is, people know that people cheat. The media is never a week without a good story. Some may concern other industries, like sports, but the episode of "Cookie the cat" cuts closer to home. As reported by Eric Spanner (***), the BBC was caught red-handed manipulating the results of an online vote to pick a name for a fluffy kitten. Users may not have been conscious that cookies spy on personal data, but Freudian slips apart, trust in popularity contests did not come up enhanced.

The danger is, one day people will rudely decide to stop running the risk of being cheated. It will not need to be by much. Following in the steps of Northern Rock lenders, Northern Rock depositors just felt no risk was better than any risk.

Nobody knows the day and the hour. Meanwhile we can enjoy the travails of hapless victims, like this student who volunteered for his church in Dallas, Texas, to find himself laughed at in Adelaide, Australia. The plot recounted by Noam Cohen (****) involves a photograph posted on Flickr and some creative advertiser. Wouldn't it be simpler to acknowledge individuals have the same data rights as stars and corporations and adopt market mechanisms which respect their privacy?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........ Letters to the editor: Sanguine about privacy and Google, by Andrew P. Morris (Financial Times) - September 28, 2007
  • (**) ...... Bad sports, why people cheat when they don't have to, by Drake Bennett (Boston Globe) - September 23, 2007
  • (***) .... Britain's Networks Come Clean to Lift a Cloud of Distrust, by Eric Pfanner (New-York Times) - September 24, 2007
  • (****) .. Use my photo? Not Without Permission, by Noam Cohen (New-York Times) - October 1, 2007
October 2007
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