Category Archives: Privacy

The Privacy Inversion

I’ve always been an avid reader, particularly when I was younger and seemed to have more time.  I’ve always loved bookstores.  I’d spend hours in them browsing from category to category.  One category I never understood was Self Help, where the titles were usually so dramatic that it had to depress sales.  After all, it took real guts to grab some of those books, stand in line, hand them to a cashier, and buy them.

What were you supposed to do if you were waiting for 10 minutes behind a woman holding Men Who Can’t Love and Women Who Love Too Much?  Quickly hop off line, grab copies of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and say “Hi, my name’s Dave” with a coy smile?

So when Amazon first came along, I thought, wow, people can finally buy books in privacy.  I bet sales of Self Help and other potentially-embarrassing-to-buy categories will go up.   After all, only you and Amazon would know you bought them.

But over time that’s completely inverted.  Say, for example, you’re bored and want to watch something juvenile late at night like Old School or American Pie.  The next morning your wife goes to Netflix and sees the Recently Watched list with Old School right there on on top.  “Honey, I thought you said you were working late last night.”

Ah, but you’re clever and think, I can defeat that by deleting the movie from my history.  But you can’t.  Netflix has decided that you cannot delete a move from your history.  You watch it and it’s there forever.   And that’s putting aside the issue that even if you could delete it, that somewhere in backup- or log-land there’s still a record of the rental.

I’m pretty sure that Amazon’s order history is permanent, too.  With one click I just looked at all my orders from 14 years ago.  And then there are recommendations which can pull things from your past and highlight them, bypassing “security by obscurity.”  Example:  we’re recommending Hall Pass because you liked American Pie even, I’d imagine, if it was some time ago.

Imagine the possibilities if someone starts sharing their 10 year old Amazon account with a curious new spouse who decides to dig into what their new partner bought way back before they were dating.  The data’s there and only a shared password away.

Nor does any of this consider the subpoena issue where I’d imagine they could go dig up offline and/or “deleted” information if so asked by effectively anyone in the right legal proceeding.

All of sudden, standing in line in the bookstore — if you can find one — and paying with cash doesn’t seem such a bad idea.