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Privacy Paradox: What You Can Do About Your Data Right Now

If we care about protecting our personal information and feel uncomfortable giving it away, why do we keep doing it?
John Hersey for WNYC
If we care about protecting our personal information and feel uncomfortable giving it away, why do we keep doing it?

This is a guest post from WNYC'sNote to Selfpodcast, which explores the effects of technology on our lives. Its week-long Privacy Paradox Project starts on Feb. 6 and you can sign up below or on the WNYC website.

You know how you should behave online. You should have strong passwords. You should think carefully before you post. And you should read the privacy policy before you click "Agree."

But reading the privacy policy of every website you visit would take you about 25 days a year, according to Carnegie Mellon researchers. No wonder we don't bother. And yet, in a Pew Research poll, almost three-quarters of Americans said the right to control who can access what information about them is "very important."

If we care so much about protecting our personal information and feel uncomfortable about giving it away, why do we keep doing it? Researchers call this conundrum the "privacy paradox."

And we at Note to Self are hoping to help you solve it. We're launching a five-day experiment at privacyparadox.org, with challenges and mini-podcasts to help you gain control over your digital information, and set some boundaries about how you want to live online. On the site, you can learn more about the project, including a quiz to find your privacy personality.

Or, you can just sign up right here to join — for five days, you'll get a newsletter with action steps, tips and the podcast.

When we surveyed 2,000 of our listeners, people said their biggest concern was the safety of their bank account details and Social Security numbers. But they also told stories of more personal privacy lost.

One man's ex-wife hacked his social media accounts and delivered what she claimed was evidence of adultery to his commanding officer. Another woman was haunted by fertility ads online after researching her upcoming ovarian surgery. Even listeners with no specific tale to tell said they feel unsettled knowing their every click and "like" is tracked, quantified — and sold.

Tech companies make money off of our online behavior — what Shoshana Zuboff refers to as our "digital exhaust." Zuboff, author of the upcomingMaster or Slave?: The Fight for the Soul of Our Information Civilization, calls this economic model "surveillance capitalism," and she says Google was one of its pioneers.

"The fastest way to make money," she says, "was to take our data, to translate it into predictions about us, and to sell it to somebody else."

This tracking is getting more and more sophisticated. Advertisers have moved way past cookies. Now, companies are using digital "fingerprinting," using your computer's address, your browser, and dozens of other data points to pinpoint who you are.

Other companies analyze the punctuation, words and tone you use in emails to profile your personality. Facebook breaks its users down into more than 50,000 different categories, such as "ethnic affinity" or "pretending to text in awkward situations," so advertisers can pinpoint their marketing.

There are upsides to all this data collection, for individuals, and maybe for us all. You might get the perfect coupon, right when you need it. You may never run out of detergent, because your Amazon Echo knows when you're low. Researchers are using big data to tackle climate change, cancer and more.

So, we're not telling you to go incognito. This is not about tinfoil hats and tossing your phone. We love the Internet and all its shiny things. But that doesn't mean we can't set some limits.

In the five-day interactive project, we'll help you understand where your personal information goes online, weigh the trade-offs and then make more thoughtful digital decisions. Tackling digital privacy can feel overwhelming. So let's do it together.

Copyright 2021 WNYC Radio. To see more, visit WNYC Radio.

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