With so much data being collected about us online, can our offline identities ever be divorced from our web personas? Today, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt offered a simple solution for kids being brought up in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat.
"I propose that at the age of 18, you should, just as a policy, change your name," Schmidt said, with a smile. "Then you can say, 'That really wasn't me; I really didn't do that!'"
Schmidt was being facetious, of course. But Google and its competitors are amassing endless troves of personal user data—tracking everything from browsing history to email to mobile usage—at times controversially. Google has already faced a number of high-profile lawsuits over privacy issues related to targeted advertising and mapping, and is likely to encounter more in the future as products like Google Glass reshape our interactions with technology. Today, at NYU's Stern business school, economist Nouriel Roubini grilled Schmidt about Google's evolving role in personal privacy.
The conversation, which was generally good-natured, took on a slightly serious tone when Roubini pressed Schmidt on what privacy would look like in 10 or 20 years, when smartphones became "stone age technology," replaced by wearable gadgets and perhaps even embedded ones. Roubini described a future when we might embed technology into our eyes or skin that could track, say, our heart rates or other consumption patterns. Even Google Glass is a step in this direction. So what could that data mean for corporations? And what would it mean for users?
"Let me be very clear that Google is not tracking you...it's not doing all these things," Schmidt said, after trying to interject Roubini's question several times, to clarify that this was a hypothetical discussion. "Does everyone get that we're not doing this? He's talking about a different company or set of companies."
Schmidt then explained that Roubini's assessment of the future was not one he agreed with. "I think you're describing a world of tracking which I think is highly unlikely to occur, because people will be upset about it in the same way you are," Schmidt said. "Governments won't allow it, and it'll be bad business. And ultimately, in a competitive market, companies want the consumers to be happy. So it's true tracking in this context...you're taking a much broader view of the word ['tracking'] than any I would use. A situation where you go to people and say, 'Oh, here's our phone, and we're going to track you to death,' people are not going to buy that phone. It's just a bad business model."
The issue, however, is that it's actually turned out to be a very good business model for many tech companies, especially in the mobile market. Targeted mobile advertising is becoming increasingly crucial to the bottom lines of companies like Google and Facebook; last quarter, for example, mobile advertising revenue represented roughly 30% of Facebook's ad revenue. Yet recent studies indicate many people are wary of growing data collection. And the average user is confronted with a general lack of transparency regarding what data is being tracked and for what purposes.
Though market competition (or regulation) may dispel some inappropriate corporate uses of personal data tracking, the likelihood is the more ways we interact with technology, the more data we're likely to share—perhaps unknowingly.
Schmidt does not believe this to be the case. "Not everyone is going to track all your behavior," he stressed. "There is no central Borg tracking all of these things."
Still, the former Google CEO did touch on some moral issues related to certain types of data collection. "In America, there is a sense of fairness, culturally true for all of us...if you have a teenage boy or girl who makes a mistake—does some sort of crime, goes to juvenile hall, is released—in our system, they can apply and have that expunged from their record. They can legally state that they were never convicted of anything. That seems like a reasonable thing," Schmidt said. "Today, that's not possible because of the Internet...[and] that seems to violate our innate sense of fairness."
"This lack of a delete button on the Internet is in fact a significant issue," Schmidt said. "There are times when erasure [of data] is the right thing...and there are times when it is inappropriate. How do we decide? We have to have that debate now."
[Image: Flickr user Marius Dollinger]