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Your Privacy Is Our Business

April 30, 2019

Let us reassure you: You’re worried only because you don’t understand anything about anything.

By Jessica Powell
Ms. Powell writes about the tech world.

April 27, 2019

Zak Tebbal
You look upset. You’ve been making a lot of noise lately about deleting our company’s app from your phone. But please, sit down. Let me explain. You just don’t understand how technology works.

I don’t mean that in a condescending way — it’s just that you clearly don’t have a Ph.D. in internet security, and I think you sometimes get a little confused when you talk about these matters.

You keep saying we don’t respect your privacy, but look — here’s your data, right here in front of you. Here’s your picture of Uncle Greg throwing his face into the Mai Tai Volcano Bowl at that tiki bar. There’s your post on President Trump (nice job! That one got a lot of likes!). It’s all there, safe and secure in the warm blue blanket we’ve placed around it. No one has hacked it. It’s totally safe. Private.

[As technology advances, will it continue to blur the lines between public and private? Sign up for Charlie Warzel’s limited-run newsletter to explore what’s at stake and what you can do about it.]

Maybe by “privacy,” what you really mean to say is “control” — that you don’t have any control over your data. Believe me, we are all about control. We have a ton of privacy settings on our app. Just click on the top right of your screen, and then the link on the pull-down menu, and then follow that one and the one after that and — there you go!

The reason we make it a bit hard to get to your settings is that people aren’t really that interested in messing with those things. We know this because we watch everything you do.

Having said that, we care deeply about privacy and security, and think it’s so empowering for you (for all of us, really) to have control over your data. So by all means, if it will make you feel better, go right ahead and change your ad settings so that we can’t target you as closely as before. But just so you know, this means we’re going to have to show you a lot of ads for colorful socks with elephants on them, because we really have no idea who wants to buy those things, and we’re paid to show them to someone.

(Also, don’t be surprised if you suddenly feel lonely when all of our precision targeting disappears and your favorite brands are no longer in touch with you. What are you going to do? Go outside? Call your friends on the phone? This is 2019. No one wants to talk to you as much as the advertisers on our app.)
You’re mumbling again and looking irritated. Something about us and a data breach. I can tell you’ve been reading the newspapers. Don’t you know those things are obsolete? And journalists are so ill informed on security matters. They don’t respect privacy — their whole job is to reveal private things! They are the last people you should listen to on this issue.

Trust me when I assure you that there hasn’t been any data breach. Your data is secure. I mean, we did give third parties access to your data and sat back and watched as a political party used an ethically dubious service to target people in one of the most fraught elections in modern history, but really, who doesn’t do that in this industry? Also, we want to be really clear on this point since you aren’t a very technical person: Your data was secure the whole time — it was just in someone else’s very secure hands.

You’re shaking your head. Look, I know this is hard for you to understand, but I’m basically Henry Ford here and you are the old carriage driver who’s really worried that I’m going to run over your horse with my new car. And well, yes, I am going to do that — but here’s the thing! We’re doing it together.

All right, I’m still working on that metaphor, but let’s talk about the printing press. You see, when the printing press was invented, people were very afraid of it. They tried to stop it. But the printing press democratized access to information. That’s what we want to do with your information — democratize it — and make it available to every person, everywhere. We want to set your data free!

And we intend to make a fortune doing it.

Jessica Powell (@themoko) is the former head of communications for Google and the author of “The Big Disruption: A Totally Fictional but Essentially True Silicon Valley Story.”

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