The effects of personalization on your privacy
Personalization can be described as “the ability to proactively tailor products and product purchasing experiences to the taste of each individual consumer based upon their personal and preference information” (Chellappa and Sin, 2005: 181). In today’s modern era where we depend on technology for just about everything, this technology is also used by companies, usually unsuspectingly by us to help them to learn more about us as we go about our daily lives so they can better personalize the things we see and have access to. The degree to which we are monitored through the technology we use or wear, it was so very accurately described in 1999 as “they aren’t giving you a watch (or in today’s circumstances this can refer to any piece of technology), you are the gift, they are giving you yourself for the watch’s birthday” (Julio Cortázar (1999: 24) from one of his short stories about being given a wrist watch as a gift), and as we continue to improve and expand on our technology and its capabilities, this is becoming more and more accurate.
In today’s world, when we access the internet through Google, the results we see are usually a list of personalized results that are being shown to us by Google, and are based on our past web activities, which includes searching, websites we visited, and even who you befriend. This wide range of information that is collected about us everyday is a breach of our privacy because we are not informed about the extent of information that is collected, neither are we able to see how it is being stored and used, and who has access to it. A major example of personalization is from the company Google and its search engine system which customizes our internet searches. Because Google is a corporate entity, there are many factors which can diminish the usefulness of this system. Some of these factors include biasness and profit-driven decisions, and these may be use in arguments against the system, because the system could be set up to personalize what we see and influence us in ways which might only be on benefit to Google, but not to us the end-user. Although personalization can help us to find what we are looking for faster and give us better and more relevant results when searching for something, personalization can also be dangerous, because results which do not corroborate your point of view based on your searches and web activity are automatically edited out, so there is nothing which makes you second guess your choices or decisions, nothing to challenge your views and make you rethink about things, nothing which helps you to improve and become a better and more open-minded person, and this is frightening, because that would mean that Google would control how we see the world, since the personalization we see when we use the web are shown to us from Google. So, we need to ask ourselves, “Do we really want to give a handful of people so much power over us that they can control how we view the world, what to think and influence our decisions?”. Research done on Google’s personalization system revealed, ” (…) at least some of the benefits of personalization will not accrue on the side of the end-user, but on the side of the advertisers who work with Google, and also profit Google itself, as it sells these personalized audiences. (…) Furthermore, it was discovered that Google was actively matching people to groups, thus giving people not only the result they wanted (based on the information Google had collected about them), but also generated results which Google thinks might be good to users (or advertisers) thus more or less subtly pushing users to see the world according to Google’s criteria” (Fuez et al., 2011).
Another example of personalization can also be seen in the popular social media site Facebook, as it was discovered, “Facebook was looking at which links I clicked on, and it was noticing that I was clicking more on my liberal friends’ links than on my conservative friends’ links. And without consulting me about it, it had edited them out. They disappeared.” (Pariser 2011a). In the case of Facebook, another drawback of personalization is that the information gathered about us is not only available for sale to advertisers by the company; but the risk of it being available to anyone through hacking or accidental disclosures (e.g. Facebook’s glitch that made private messages appear in public timelines). Although social media sites like Facebook are free to use, “Do not be fooled into thinking social media apps and sites are free to use; you are paying a price: your data.” (IFLA journal 0340-0352 Garcia Rivadulla, Sandra, 2016). This can also be confirmed, because of the recent event of Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp for $19 billion, and this event summarizes our worst fears, “The quite recent acquisition of WhatsApp by Facebook is proof of our data being the price we pay. What was Facebook paying $19 billion for – a mobile messaging service provider? Hardly. Among other things, they were paying for more than 500 million users’ data, including phone numbers that users are sometimes reluctant to give to the social media site.” (Solon, 2014).