privacy on the internet: it’s an exchange

I like to think of privacy as an exchange–a transaction, if you will. Like exchanging a handful of quarters for a soda from the vending machine, you exchange your privacy for some convenience or information on the internet.

If you want privacy, you have to be willing to give something up–information, convenience, whatever. So while I’m conscious of the image that I give off through social media, the information about myself that I put out on the Internet, and even the cookies that websites use to track my activity, I’m not overly worried.

I don’t mind sharing information about myself on the Internet. It’s what I’m doing right now, and it’s what I do every time I use Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. I publish my work to the web regularly for The Oklahoma Daily, and I publish my work to my photography portfolio and blog website. In some cases, I want people to see what I’m doing. I want people to see my photography and my work for The Daily,  so I give up some privacy. I want people to see my stories on social media, so I keep my account privacy relatively lax, allowing plenty of people to see what I’m up to. I’m careful about it, of course, but I make a conscious decision to give up my privacy when I’m using the Internet.

Of course, there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes when I’m using social media or even sending an email. As a Gmail user, I know keywords from my email correspondence are picked up and shot off to advertisers, and I know it because when I open emails from my Poem-a-Day newsletter, the ads on the side read “Publish your poetry now!” and “Self publish a book now!” And while I’m not particularly interested in publishing poetry or a book, it’s not overly bothersome to me. I love Gmail. Would I love it more if it wasn’t scanning my emails for advertising buzzwords? Maybe a little. But Gmail is a free service, so I exchange some of my privacy for an email service that doesn’t let lots of spam into my inbox and that works nicely on a lot of devices.

I know that websites track my activity with cookies, too, and I know it because if I’m looking at sweaters online (which, as it so happens, I often do), ads I see on other websites encourage me to buy those very same sweaters or consider different brands of sweaters. This exchange of privacy might seem more malicious because I’m never agreeing to a terms of service upfront when I get to an online store, and I don’t know what other information is being tracked about my Internet use. Still, I’m exchanging some privacy for the convenience of shopping online.

While Internet tracking can quickly go from harmless to sinister, we make a conscious decision to use the Internet to make our lives easier. If Internet services overstep their boundaries in terms of what we’re willing to share with them, we’ll take a stand, and they’ll step back. As long as we’re conscious of how we’re using the Internet and what information we’re divulging about ourselves online, the Internet and all it has to offer can be fabulously useful.