The price we pay for “free” food

There’s a line that exists as a border between convenience and privacy. I’m not quite sure how thin that line is (I imagine it varies for each person), but it’s something I’ve had to start thinking about. It seems like every month, there’s a new story about a data breach at a major company. Want to see a disturbing long list of breaches? ought to sober you up a little bit.

Our personal information is a major currency. Companies vacuum up details about our lives from our browser histories, forms we fill out, items we purchase from their stores, sites we visit after visiting theirs, sites we visit where their trackers are embedded, and sometimes, from our phones after just walking into their stores.

They want to know what brands we buy, where we look at their merchandise, what paths we use to walk through their stores, whether we comparison shop with other companies. Looking for flights online? Airlines will use the cookies on your browser to see where you’ve been looking and use that information to manipulate the cost of flights. Use a store’s free Wi-Fi? They see what sites and apps you use and where you are in their building. Sign up for a perk card or other membership program? They’ll send you coupons (good) so that you spend more of your money there (bad?).

If you’re anything like me, your time, money, and attention are limited resources. I know going in that the sandwich place is using points to get me to go into their store more often and spend more money. I get more food for less money.

But, I understand that they may be selling that information to other companies so they can hone their advertising. Those companies may pass my information on. At any one of those companies, there could be a data breach, taking identifiable information about me and giving it to “bad actors”, whoever that may be. I have to make a choice. Is that “free” sandwich every other month (or so) worth the possibility of having my info get out into the world?

For me, the answer is yes. I need to make my money go as far as it can. For other people, that answer may be no, they don’t want any more of their info getting out than has to, and that’s cool too. We have made conscious decisions about our data.

The group that we need to reach is everyone else. The ones who don’t understand that they just made a choice about their data. People act surprised when they hear about a data breach at a company and don’t understand a) how that company got their information and b) what that may mean for them. They also don’t c) know how that could impact them. The problem is complex.

Not everyone wants to or can break that down for themselves (or explain it to loved ones!). We need to learn how explain this to people in a way that makes sense and doesn’t cause a panic. People need to be able to understand for themselves the potential risk involved with coupons.

Ultimately, it’s up to the companies to better police themselves or the government to create an actual police force for these (often international) companies. I have low hopes of that happening, no hope of that happening well, and no illusion that it’ll happen anytime soon, without something catastrophic happening first.

Therefore, I propose that we create a grassroots movement to teach people about data safety and personal information (and responsibility!). Companies like Vivaldi and Brave, and organizations like the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) and Mozilla are good places to start. However, we need to be able to teach this information to those we care about in a way that they’ll understand… and care about. That’s the trick. Then we can start making choices intelligently for ourselves and families.

The hope, then, will be that companies will see the choices we are making and become more responsible in accordance with our actions. That they will become better stewards of our information. Because a lot of them aren’t doing it now…

I’m getting hungry. Time for a “free” sandwich.

9 thoughts on “The price we pay for “free” food”

  1. Good post. I like how you avoid falling into the easy trap of tinfoil-hat paranoia so prevalent these days, and focus on the individual conscious choices we have to make between privacy and convenience. And you are absolutely right, it’s not us technically adept users who need to be taught how this works, but instead we need to teach all the rest, our family and friends about online privacy to stop them being exploited by corporations hungry for personal data.

    Couple things:
    – It’s “border” not “boarder” 😉
    – Maybe avoid using too many interjections in parenthesis (yay, *sigh* etc). You can easily cut out most of these in my opinion.

    1. 1. Good catch, than you.
      2. I tend to go for a more conversational approach, but I can see how some of those are distracting. I’ll leave a few in, but I can see that getting rid of the bulk in the middle of the article would help flow.

  2. Thank you for a really excellent and well-thought article. This is such a polarising issue, I was completely amazed (and pleasantly surprised) when you explained about data breaches and data harvesting, and then went on to say you’d weighed it all up and you prefer the free sandwich! Unfortunately, the vast majority of people who consider and appreciate these issues (myself included) tend to be of the “tin foil hat” brigade; as such, if I mention it to any of my relatives, I have to be very careful that they don’t “switch off”, roll their eyes, and say, “it’s that paranoid hare again!”. Whilst I would rather not have the free sandwich, I completely understand and respect your point of view. I have a very modest income, which most people would not be able to manage on, but I just about can. However, if I were earning any less, I think I would weigh it up just like you, and join you for your free sandwich!

    I think it boils down to “knowledge=power”. If people are aware, they can gain knowledge. Once they have knowledge, they can make informed decisions (just like you and I both have, arriving at the opposite conclusions). You have the knowledge and took the sandwich. I have the knowledge and refused the sandwich. We both made a conscious decision for ourselves. That gives us power. You and I have wrestled just a little bit of power back from all the trackers, profilers and data-traders that seek to abuse our information. Regardless of whether other people want the sandwich or their private data, wouldn’t it be great if they all wrestled that power back too? Maybe there would then be a more level playing field, and various companies would treat our personal information – the details of our very lives – with a little less contempt.

    1. Thank you for responding!

      Personally, I would love to have the sandwich and the power, and I think with some patience and educating others, we might get that. Unfortunately, we’re not just battling ignorance, in the sense of not yet knowing, but apathy. “I’ve got nothing to hide” is a seductive argument for a lot of people.

      I appreciate you taking the time to respond. Fight on!

  3. Sometimes you don’t even know that your data is processed by other companies because you actively never contacted them and were not even on their web page, imagine buying a house. There are several other companies involved for vetting you if you are creditworthy and reinsurance in case you can not pay your mortgage and most of them (at least in the USA) got hacked and hundreds of millions of full data sets were leaked.

    I could be cynical (no pun intended) and say that all information is leaked anyway and that we don’t need any more breaches apart from updates for the breaches …

    … but it seems at least some governments wake up and try to restrict what gets stored and act upon companies who leak our data.

    I am tired of the lame excuses and the lies about “your security is our greatest concern” which accompany the standard statements of the usual suspects, so I translated the response to the last mega million breach to plain English
    The juicy part is in the “edit” at the end 😉

    1. Well written and enlightening, in a terror-filled, I can’t believe they didn’t check that, kind of way.

      Thanks for responding!

      1. That’s really interesting, thank you for sharing!

        I’m certainly not going to pretend I know the right answers to questions raised in the article, but it’s good that people are taking privacy more seriously.

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