Friday night topic: online trust and the death of privacy


— 4:28 PM on February 20, 2015

All of the recent revelations about things like infected hard drive firmware and the still-unfolding Lenovo Superfish debacle have made the tech news particularly depressing of late. I have to admit, I've never really been a security buff who follows every twist and turn in that particular area of technology. Keeping up with it has been a chore, not a joy. Lately, though, one gets the creeping feeling that some of the most strident and paranoid folks from that community have essentially been more right than anyone realized.

The problem with governments spying on citizens is one thing, but I find the involvement of technology companies in this mix, mostly in the pursuit of profit, somehow more infuriating. Perhaps it's because we seem to have made a new tradeoff.

In decades past, PC software was rife with crapware—software bundled with other products for a service you don't really want, like the Yahoo! toolbar. We didn't like it, but crapware helped fund the development of free software and cheap PCs. Nowadays, especially with the rise of mobile apps and curated app stores, traditional crapware is on the decline. Instead, we've decided to trade our privacy for free services—whether it's a flashlight app that harvests your phone's address book or a Google Now service that does, frankly, I-don't-know-what with the detailed metrics if gathers about one's activities.

The I-don't-know-what part of that equation may be what really bothers me. What does Google do with all of our data? What about Facebook? Others? I know these companies publish policies about these things, but finding time to sort through the complexities seems incredibly daunting. Facebook seems to have a very intentional policy of shifting its privacy policies every so often, with the effect being that eventually, without vigilance, all of your data shared there becomes public. Sift, sift.

It seems like today's Internet is built almost entirely on this exchange: give us your data, and we'll give you cool services for free. Accepting that bargain requires trust, and I think many of us are questioning who we can trust these days. Have we ruined the Internet by trusting too freely? Discuss.

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