The FTC's Internet 'PrivacyCon' Points Out the Elephant in the Room

People, no matter what they say, have no idea how to manage privacy online.

With respect to online privacy, the typical consumer is generally hosed and blissfully unaware.

The Federal Trade Commission today hosted its first-ever PrivacyCon, a premiere event spawned to promote conversation between researchers and academics on matters of privacy and security. Experts gave presentations. There were five sessions: online privacy, consumer privacy, big data, economics, and security usability.

If that all sounds boring, it’s because it was.

While guests from universities, companies, and other organizations delivered specialized presentations in their niche, a common theme slowly emerged throughout the day: the John Q. Public of the internet doesn’t really understand the relationship between information and online security. This indifference was repeatedly pointed to as a symptom of a larger, underlying problem: The public doesn’t understand why it’s important in the first place.

Some of the surprising statistics to come out of PrivacyCon’s day: Google has trackers in one form or another on approximately 92 percent (!!!) of the internet, making it almost as good at monitoring your web traffic — the sites you visit, basically — as your internet service provider. Facebook has its own trackers on 548 of the world’s top 1,000 web pages. Cookie usage is up, meaning more and more websites are collecting little bits of your data.

And no one really seems to care.

A standout speaker addressed this phenomenon of disinterest elegantly. According to Dr. Joseph Turow, the oft-cited “tradeoff” paradigm — that internet users willingly part with personal information online for the sake of using a service — is a myth. Turow much more readily chalks it up to “user resignation.” Users either don’t know or don’t care that their information is being harvested. Doesn’t it feel automatic to click “yes” to a terms of service agreement without reading a single word? Sure it does.

Geoffrey Manne, executive director of International Center for Law & Economics, suggested that the privacy discussion should revolve around choosing to participate in different regimes of privacy policy, rather than having everyone march blindly into a one-size-fits-all situation.

Our contemporary economy is one in which something as abstract as a single piece of information can have consequential, real-world implications: A fortune made on a hot stock tip, a bank account emptied by a thief who stole a password.

The undeniable reality of today’s internet is that information is harvested by criminals, companies, and governments alike. It’s often data about our age, location, and other benign metrics that can be sold to advertisers. When this data is collected en masse, it can paint a very clear picture not only of who a person is, but of who they want to be.

And I want to be a guy who’s done listening to a panel of dudes discussing privacy policy:

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