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Does Privacy Exist? Do We Even Care?

In October 1943, during the rebuilding of the House of Commons after the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill addressed the lower house of Parliament: “We shape our buildings” he said, “and our buildings shape us.”

What he meant is that the way we build our homes and offices impacts how we live our lives. For example, in most homes, the dining room is next to the kitchen. There’s usually a bathroom next to the bedroom. If you extend this concept more broadly to encompass cities, residential areas are separate from commercial areas which are separate from manufacturing areas. Anyone who has played SimCity knows this fact inherently. My point is that the way our homes are structured as well as our cities and towns, influence how we go about living. Where we eat. Where we buy things. Where we spend our time. Technology works the same way. We shape technologies and they shape us.

Take for example, my mobile phone. On that device, I have an application called Google Now. It’s an amazing application. It reads all of my Gmail. Everything email I send and receive is processed by Google Now. Because I purchase all of my music through Google Play, it knows who my favorite bands. It knows my location twenty four hours a day because I never turn off my phone (or GPS). It knows all the movies I watch because I purchase all my movies through Google. It knows the locations of my office and home because I’ve programmed them into Google Maps. It knows every search I’ve ever made on my laptop, mobile phone, and tablet because I use Google Chrome as my default browser and it shares my search history across those devices.

As a result, Google Now knows more about me that I probably know about myself. It tells me things before I ask it. When I step off a plane, my cell phone tells me that my favorite band is playing at a microbrewery nearby and then encourages me to buy tickets. Google Now tells me when my flights are delayed or canceled before the airline does. Probably most frightening (and it’s because I don’t know how Google does this) my cell phone tells me fifteen minutes before I leave work that there is traffic on my normal route and that I should take a different route.

How does it know when I’m leaving work?

Kinda scary. But also kinda cool. I will happily give up certain aspects of my privacy because I want the convenience that Google Now gives me. And I love it. But I love it even though I know what I’m giving up.

I know the risks of surrendering my private information. I know that if I’m not buying the product, I am the product. But, it seems sometimes the benefits I get from a particular technology outweigh any associated danger.

And, maybe more frightening, I’m not sure I care.

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