March 15, 2019 / 4:32 PM / 5 months ago

Would you give up some online privacy in return for convenience?

When was the last time you used a printed map to plot a route or flicked through the local newspaper for cinema listings - or waited until you could get to the high street to buy that special pair of shoes?

Apps make our lives easy – at the touch of a button you can chat for free with friends, find directions to anywhere in the world or pay for almost anything. How did we live without this convenience for so long?

But many of the apps, sites and online tools available to us come with a cost. It may not be as obvious as cash, but the first law of economics is that nothing in life is free, so what exactly are we giving away in exchange for this convenience? And is it a fair exchange?

The Cambridge Analytica scandal uncovered how Facebook harvested swathes of user data and employed it, without consent, for political purposes. And yet millions of us continue to use, and benefit from, the platform. Our quest for convenience has created a model that can, and will, be used against us.

As you go about your daily business, you may be sharing more about yourself than you realise. It is hard to function and not leave a vapour trail - and yet we are letting platforms into our lives like never before, even giving them access to our homes.

It’s slightly alarming, at first, when your devices seem to know where ‘home’ is, where you want to go on holiday and what brand of cocoa you prefer. But as machines anticipate our every whim, we find ourselves becoming accustomed to this world of time and cost savings, connectivity and seamless experiences that feel tailor-made for us. And is that so bad, after all?

Consumers have long traded data for services they find valuable, but we are notoriously contradictory about the kind of information we are prepared to ‘sell’. There is a fundamental conflict between the human desire for both anonymity and recognition. While there is something primal about the need for personal space and secrecy, what right do we have to privacy when we enter a public space? How much is too much?

Celebrities seem to sign an invisible contract in their quest for fame. If they want the attention and recognition that propels them to the spotlight, can they disappoint the fan-base that has built them up by claiming a right to anonymity whenever they leave the house? Isn’t that what they signed up for? Surely the same is true for the digital economy? If the online world were a bank account, shouldn’t we only be allowed to make withdrawals if we have first made investments? 

The digital revolution has made it possible for us to have anything we want, whenever we want it – and to live almost entirely online. In our lifetime, we are likely to see cash rendered obsolete - we have to let old systems go to make way for the new.

So does it truly serve us to hold on to our privacy as the last bastion of a civilized society? Or should we contribute our data to a digital future of endless possibility and alluring convenience?

The Reuters editorial and news staff had no role in the production of this content. It was created by Reuters Plus, part of the commercial advertising group. To work with Reuters Plus, contact us here.

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