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The Internet Has Been A Huge Privacy Plus, Thus Far

Cameras are everywhere. Someone wearing Google Glasses might be videoing you at any time. Facebook has conducted secret psychological tests on its users. The US National Security Agency and other government agencies around the world are monitoring far more of our communications than most of us thought. Today’s internet giants are developing multi-dimensional virtual profiles for all of us – tracking where we have been, what we do, who we know, and more. Paparazzi drones, anyone?

Privacy Plus

The internet has increased our privacy by much more than it has reduced it.

While everyone should be concerned about the potential for a dystopian panopticon, where everybody is watching everybody else, there is another side to the story. Thus far, the internet has been a huge privacy plus, meaning that it has increased our privacy by much more than it has reduced it. The key question is whether this will continue throughout the Big Data era.

The many ways that technology has improved individual privacy are fairly obvious, but for whatever reasons, they tend to go unmentioned. But imagine if you lived in a small town in the pre-internet era. The cashier at the local book store, who may recognize you, saw what books or magazines you bought. You might want to date new people, but be reluctant to put an ad in the local newspaper. If you wished to privately learn more about a disease, drugs, sex, bankruptcy or anything that might be deemed politically incorrect, you were mostly out of luck. The overall effect could be claustrophobic.

One of the reasons many people choose to live in cities is that urban areas provide much more anonymity. But the internet provides even greater privacy, regardless of where you live. Although it’s true that somewhere in cyberspace computers know pretty much everything we do, the vast majority of people have experienced little downside. This has proven to be profoundly liberating, enabling us to pursue our interests and find like-minded people, resulting in an explosion in community learning and activity. There are now over a billion internet users, virtually all of whom have enjoyed important privacy benefits.

In contrast, most privacy concerns – even those listed in the opening paragraph – remain largely hypothetical in that they are focused on what could happen. Clearly, there have been many terrible cases of identity theft, public shaming/bullying, unintended personal revelations and other abuses, but often these have been more a matter of crime and security breakdowns than privacy issues per se. Overall, the social contract has not been seriously challenged.

Are we reaching a tipping point?

Of course, past performance does not predict future returns. Just because the benefits have always outweighed the costs there is no guarantee that this will continue. Controversial firms such as Instant Checkmate point the way to a worrisome future. The company seeks to pull together a wide range of publically available records for individual Americans – arrests, traffic violations, marriages/divorces, lawsuits, bankruptcies, property registrations, classmates, Facebook/LinkedIn profiles and more – into a searchable internet database. For a fee, anyone can easily look up information on anyone else.

Although aggregating publicly available information isn’t generally illegal, the service raises many troubling questions that are relevant to the major search engines as well. How much of our personal histories should be available? Who should this information be available to, and for how long? What can we do if the information is wrong? If the internet is to remain a net privacy plus, these issues will have to be satisfactorily resolved. This will require privacy policies and/or practices that distinguish between services based on data that has been ‘anonymized’ and those that intentionally use our real names.

The fact that the word anonymous is used in two different ways is confusing. Marketing professionals routinely anonymize data so that they can identify trends, build lists and target customers without seeing actual individuals’ names. But from a user’s perspective, anonymity means something quite different – the ability to post comments without providing your name. While this type of anonymity is liberating, it is also a major source of bad behaviour – insults, extremism, trolling, etc. In short, using data anonymously has generally been safe; anonymous individual behaviour has its pros and cons.

Big Data meets globalization

We are increasingly using the phrase digital aura to describe the trail of data that we leave when we engage with internet technologies. Our use of this phrase was inspired by the recent book Code Halos1. We very much liked that metaphor, but don’t think halo is really the right word. (However, either term is much better than digital exhaust, which is still used by many in the Big Data community.)

Much of the Big Data movement is based on the idea that each of our digital auras can be quantified, and become the basis of important new applications. For example, it turns out that US music listening habits can often predict voting patterns. So if you listen to country music on Pandora, expect to hear ads for conservative causes, but if you prefer folk or rap, you’ll get more messages from liberal organizations. It’s a good example of how our digital profiles will increasingly blur traditional industry boundaries. This will be an important future LEF theme.

From a privacy perspective, quantified reputations have clear behavioural implications, many of them useful. For example, knowing that Uber tracks how many times we cancel taxi rides will make us less likely to do this – ditto for OpenTable, Airbnb and many other services. Hopefully, these positive behavioural nudges will outweigh any negative privacy effects. For example, accumulated positive ratings might help someone override any one bad search result. (For many people who are not active online, the first result of a Google search may well be the worst thing that person ever did, such as an embarrassing photo or a long-ago court appearance.)

Conflicting global privacy policies appear to be the most immediate concern.

Conflicting global privacy policies appear to be the most immediate concern. The internet was mostly developed in America and is primarily led by American firms, most of whom would prefer to have a uniform set of global privacy regulations and practices. But other regions and nations often see things very differently. These differences might stem from long-standing privacy or authoritarian concerns, reactions to the Snowden revelations, or simply the wish to limit American company power and influence. Whatever the motivations, establishing a global privacy consensus looks increasingly unlikely, and this could potentially disrupt current internet usage patterns.

Over the years, the LEF has not done a lot of privacy research because privacy considerations haven’t been a major barrier to IT industry progress. But this may well be changing. In an era of cloud computing, social media, mobility, Big Data and globalization, maintaining public confidence in individual privacy will be a critical digital economy challenge. We are very much considering adding The Future Of Privacy to our 2015 research agenda. Which privacy concerns are of most interest to your organization?

1. Malcolm Frank et al, Code Halos: How the Digital Lives of People, Things, and Organizations are Changing the Rules of Business, John Wiley, 2014


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Research Commentary

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David Moschella
Research Fellow
David Moschella, based in the United States, is a Research Fellow for Leading Edge Forum.  David's focus is on industry disruptions, machine intelligence and related business model strategies.  David was previously Global Research Director of the programme. David’s key areas of expertise include globalization, industry restructuring, disruptive technologies, and the co-evolution of business and IT.  He is the author of multiple research reports, including Disrupting the Professions through Machine Learning and Digital Trust, 2016 Study Tour Report: Applying Machine Intelligence, There is Now a Formula for Machine Intelligence Innovation,  Embracing 'the Matrix' and the Machine Intelligence Era and The Myths and Realities of Digital Disruption. An author and columnist, David’s second book, Customer-Driven IT, How Users Are Shaping Technology Industry Growth, was published in 2003 by Harvard Business School Press.  The book predicted the shift from a supplier-driven to today’s customer-led IT environment.  His 1997 book, Waves of Power, assessed global competition within the IT supplier community.  He has written some 200 columns for Computerworld, the IT Industry’s leading publication on Enterprise IT, and has presented at countless industry events all around the world. David previously spent 15 years with International Data Corporation, where he was IDC’s main spokesperson on global IT industry trends and was responsible for its worldwide technology, industry and market forecasts.    


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