Does Convenience Trump Privacy?

The details of our lives are now digitized, placed in various databases, indexed and searched; bits that can be pieced together to get a sense of the whole. Google – with its mission statement to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful – sees our lives and the information we create and store as things to be searched and retrieved. For better or worse, it delves into our identities, one piece at a time, from IP addresses, to our likes and dislikes, to what we say in our Gmail messages, to snapshots of us on the street for use in Street Views on Google Maps.

But what does that mean for our privacy? Is concern over privacy even relevant anymore? Each time Google has launched a new service or feature there has been a hue and cry over the potential loss of privacy. Inevitably, this uproar eventually disappears. Have our fears been misplaced? Or do our protests lose steam because the utility of the product trumps those initial privacy concerns?

It is interesting to look back only a few years ago when Google launched Gmail, its free email service that today is used without a second thought by hundreds of thousands of people. At the time, many expressed concern or outright refused to use the free email service because Google would send advertisements to subscribers tailored to the contents of their incoming e-mail, which would be combed by special software. Now, however, few think twice about subscribing to Gmail, either having forgotten about the intrusion into their personal information or having resigned themselves to its inevitability.

This pattern has repeated itself time and again. Last June, when Google launched its Google Street View, which posted thousands of street-level photographs of major American cities as part of its Google Maps, people again complained that the images violated their privacy. Some questioned whether people would feel differently about street-level image mapping if it were done by a government agency. But as with Gmail, the complaints eventually died down.

And only a week ago Google launched its pilot program for Google Health, which allows patients to store their medical records on Google’s servers so that they can be retrieved at any time through the new service. Consumer and privacy advocates claim this service leaves personal medical records open to access by third-party services that are not covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. This, critics complain, unwittingly makes it easier for the government or some other legal adversary to obtain the information.

Evidence of this concern can be seen even on our own class’s discussion board, as we debate the merits of the service – the clear convenience of having our records so readily available regardless of time or place – and the obvious drawbacks of such personal and sensitive information potentially vulnerable to hackers or opportunistic third-parties. I believe that once again convenience will trump privacy.

In the past, it was relatively easy to protect your privacy. In the analog world, it took concerted effort to uncover and optimize another’s personal information. Protecting our privacy was therefore relatively easy to achieve, and there was little to be gained by relinquishing it. The technology was not there to capitalize on the information in a way that would be useful for society at large. 

Today, however, truly useful technology requires a level of openness that has never been seen before. To take advantage of the conveniences that are afforded by services, such as those offered by Google, you have no choice but to opt in to the new, open society. Do you want to know how much your neighbors’ houses are worth? Do you want to see what the restaurant you mapped on Google actually looks like? Do you want the convenience of advertisements that are actually pertinent to you, and not extraneous information you neither want nor need? Do you want to be able to have a portable, updated electronic version of your medical file available whenever you want or need it?

To have these benefits, the public has to make concessions. The luxury of opting out is no longer a viable option. We either need to change the way we view privacy – as Saul Hansell suggested in his New York Times blog Bits – or come up with new regulations that may, in the end, stifle technological advances.

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3 Responses to “Does Convenience Trump Privacy?”

  1. » Does Convenience Trump Privacy? free medical web log: On my blog you will find stories from other writers which I have found inspiring, educational, or just fun. Follow the links to read the whole story directly from the author. Says:

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  2. breast cancer talk » Blog Archive » Does Convenience Trump Privacy? Says:

    […] bytesizedwords always has something good to say. I like this one posted earlier today. Follow the link for the whole thing.Consumer and privacy advocates claim this service leaves personal medical records open to access by third-party services that are not covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. … […]

  3. Does Convenience Trump Privacy? Says:

    […] bytesizedwords had an interesting blog post (Does Convenience Trump Privacy?).Here’s a small excerpt:Consumer and privacy advocates claim this service leaves personal medical records open to access by third-party services that are not covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. … […]

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