If You Think You're Losing Privacy, Think Again. You Never Had It

FitBit owners threw a bit of a fit recently, when it was announced that Google had purchased the exercise monitoring wristband company for $2.1 billion.

People's biggest concern? Privacy.

After Google's Big Fit Geek Wedding, several FitBit owners took to social media and shared their disgust. They were concerned about what Google would do with all that personal health data — location, BMI, heart rate, heart rate when you look at certain naughty websites, They said they were going to stop using their FitBits immediately, so they could protect their personal information from the world's biggest data repository.

Ah, privacy. The one myth that everyone gets wildly wrong because no one understands what it actually is.

Your first problem, bitter Fitters, is thinking you have any privacy in the first place. You absolutely do not and never did.

Your second is taking to social media to talk about it. If you were concerned about privacy, you just shared a lot of personal information on a public social network in a single update.

Complaining about privacy on social media is like changing your clothes in the middle of the street and telling people not to look.

That's because social networks like Facebook know everything about you. They know who your friends and family are and where you went to school. They know what you like and dislike. They know your political views and who you argue with and why. They run facial recognition on every photo you share, and they read every private message you post. They know your birthplace, mother's maiden name, and phone number.

But what if you're not on Facebook at all?

Doesn't matter. They still know most of this stuff about you anyway, because your family is on Facebook, sharing the stuff you do together.

But it wasn't actual personal privacy that people have been concerned about with the FitBit fracas.

"I just don't want Google to know that much about me," privacy advocates shouted publicly, ignoring targeted ads designed to appeal to them based on their age, sex, location, marital status, and interests.

Look, Google's latest acquisition isn't going to affect your personal privacy at all. That ship sailed so long ago, it found a new trade route to India.

Here's how much of your personal data is already out there.

On November 4, Kashmir Hill recently wrote in The New York Times about our "secret consumer score," a rating system that companies use to decide what level of customer service they'll provide to us.

Think of it as a credit score of helpfulness: the higher your secret consumer score, the faster and more help you'll get.

The score, which is largely invisible to the general public, is made up of all kinds of data — including social media posts, past purchases, and even email messages you send to certain websites.

Hill said she emailed several companies, including one called Sift, for her data that they have been collecting on her.

Sift sent her a 400 page report that included information like past emails with Airbnb hosts, years-old Yelp food orders, and even all the times she opened the Coinbase app on her iPhone.

(Note: It did not have personal, private emails or text messages.)

Companies like Shift don't share this information with third-party companies though. They're hired by companies like Airbnb and Yelp to help identify credit card fraud and identity theft, so those companies freely provide that data — your data — to Sift.

And Sift use machine learning algorithms that can — you guessed it — sift through 16,000 different factors and "(predict) risks for particular events at particular times, for particular fraud."

(You can email them at privacy@sift.com to get a copy of your own data.)

In other words, any time you go online, use an app, visit a website, send a message, or make a purchase, someone somewhere knows about it.

Every credit card purchase, every bank transaction, every utility payment, every magazine subscription, every social media update, every website you visit (yes, even those websites), and every every every single online purchase has been recorded somewhere.

And chances are, they're sharing it with companies whose sole job it is to compile all that information, analyze it, and then sell it to other companies that want to advertise to us.

We're being marketed to based on our so-called "private" information. Every online ad you see, every marketing email you get, even the flyers that fill your mailbox, they're all targeted specifically at you because corporations have more insights about you than you have about yourself. They know what you're likely to buy based on the millions of bits of data they know about you.

So getting rid of your FitBit because Google will have access to your health data is like closing the barn door after the barn burned down.

Just stand close and warm your hands on the dying embers. Everyone else can see you doing it anyway.

Photo credit: Martin Vorel (Libreshot.com, Creative Commons 0)

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