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Is Privacy Dead?

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While Microsoft and Google are in the latest salvo war over whose email system is truly private (calling Gmail "private" is perhaps an oxymoron), a much more significant issue is at the core: How important is our privacy? We are living in an era where Facebook's Graph Search gives strangers greater access than ever to our "private" data and Google arbitrarily steals our passwords and emails (during its Street View project). Did our forefathers misunderstand the demand for privacy as an inalienable right for law-abiding citizens in democracy? Is privacy dead? Do we care?

These are important questions, and are fundamental to the decisions we are making today about the future of privacy in the midst of the rampant technology invasion into our lives. There is an irony that while the world moves towards democracy, individual privacy is being eroded. Privacy began to disappear about 15 years ago when nobody was paying attention. It started with mass adoption of the Internet and the need to monetize "eyeballs" which became a key component of the "B-to-C" revenue model; there were no rules. Rather than interact with their customers directly, data scraping became a default mechanism of Internet companies.

I know because from 1998-2001 I founded and ran one of the very first social networking companies, SuperGroups.com, which included SuperFamily.com and SuperFriends.com, both PC Magazine "Top 100" sites in their day. The idea of data scraping was in its nascent stage then, along with the enticing prospect of the true 1:1 marketing opportunity it seemed to offer. Using tracking cookies along with aggressive data scraping had its real catapult about 10 years ago as being social on the Internet became even more public, sexy and fun. There were chat rooms, MySpace, blogs and then Facebook. You could discover everything about your friends, neighbors, and strangers by simply Googling them. We were broadcasting to the world. Who cared? It was addictive; a whole new world to explore.

So we all got excited. Consumers and companies alike -- as we published our lives online, the service providers grabbed the data and learned as much as they could about us. In that heady elixir we overlooked the natural component about how important privacy is even when we're social; and how much we do not like to be spied on. It's not an oxymoron to be private and to be social. It's a fundamental component with varying gradients in our communities and relationships. By definition "being social" happens even in a private 1:1 conversation. We're social yet private in our homes with our loved ones. We're social with our friends, but we're not broadcasting to the whole world. We're social at work and in restaurants. There is no camera in our living room (Samsung is about to change that -- the camera is now going to be built into the TV).

It was sexy and exciting to be broadcasting everywhere until we realized, "Look at this digital trail. I wouldn't really want my future (or current) spouse, kids, friends or employer to see that. It wasn't meant for them.... and I can't delete it... uh oh."

The final straw for me in this conversation was in 2010 when Eric Schmidt, Steve Jobs and Marc Zuckerberg declared that privacy was dead. I was infuriated. In that moment I committed to bring privacy back.

Privacy is coming back to where it fits in with individuals, societies and corporations. It had a little vacation. As Microsoft points out, not only have we posted things that we'd like to take back, but the companies we are posting them with are analyzing every word and phrase in our private emails and building a repository of data on us based on our every click, post and email. We are creeped out. Companies claiming to protect our privacy have been negligent. Google has been fined millions of dollars for violating its users' privacy and their own privacy policies. PATH, a purported privacy centric photo-sharing app, was just fined $800,000 by the FTC for violating their own privacy policies (for the second time) and the law. Instagram (Facebook-owned) recently attempted to change their privacy policy and claim ownership over the pictures in their members' accounts. The uproar was palpable and the company quickly reversed course, but trust was broken.

TRUSTe says 90 percent of us worry about online privacy, and just before Facebook's IPO fully 59 percent of its users did not trust it to protect their personal information. These numbers, high already, are likely increasing. Can the free market save us and give us choices that protect our privacy without the imposing hand of government regulation to protect us? Can a social media company be profitable without resorting to tracking cookies and data scraping? The answer is yes. Just as Whole Foods can sell food with high profit margins without resorting to high fructose corn syrup, so can an Internet company provide users with a service and revenue model designed in their highest interests, truly serving the needs and desires of customers. Today I have built Sgrouples.com, a site founded on "privacy by design," respecting our members, giving them an unprecedented Privacy Bill of Rights, and explicitly not tracking, scraping or selling their data. It's been called "Facebook and Dropbox with privacy."

Is that enough? In democracies, laws have always been in place to protect the privacy of law-abiding citizens. Our great country is founded upon the right for its citizens to enjoy their privacy. That has always distinguished us from regimes where privacy was trampled upon and it is why so many of our forebears left their homes to come to America. Coupled with capitalism, citizens of democracies prefer the power of consumer choice to the overbearingly strong-arm of regulation. Yet this insidious invasion of our privacy has been largely unregulated and often shrouded in deceptive practices. Companies must become transparent in defining not only exactly what they are doing with our information but also how they are spying on and tracking us. There is too much deception in the legalese of privacy policies and terms of services.

Law abiding citizens are entitled to the right of privacy regardless of how electronic this world gets. Governments in the USA, Canada, as well as the European Commission, are lining up and saying 'Wait a minute. Privacy is a fundamental right of the citizens of our nations and we must protect it.'

The bottom line is that as human beings we are naturally social, in discreet ways. In the allure of publicly posting details of our lives, we temporarily forgot that discretion is a natural component of the human social experience. In the midst of our memory lapses an industry also became hooked on the unsavory business of tracking our every move and post. Today we are remembering natural order and balance in the social milieu, and the privacy revolution is real.

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