Privacy is a very hot topic nowadays. Not many years ago the EU implemented the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which ensures a lot more privacy and general data safety for Europeans. Since then more countries have followed with their own versions. Especially with how things have headed for the past decade or two, privacy is an important discussion. However, I often see it ending up with a sentiment of “You’re either for or against tracking”.
I’ve had my fair share of discussions about this, especially now that I work in a company which main focus is privacy, with my opinion having swayed a few times. I recently noticed something that scared me at first; Tracking has changed my life. Being tracked across the web has shaped my life in multiple ways, and I would most likely not be where I am today, if not for being tracked. Pondering on that fact for some time, I concluded that it wasn’t all bad…
YouTube Shaped My Career
For many years I was unsure about what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a singer. An actor. A teacher. A musician. Eventually, around the age of 17, I was set on having a career in IT. Still no idea what I wanted, besides wanting to be in IT, I started studying Computer Science. Didn’t take long for me to notice that this was something I really enjoyed. A few months into my degree I was ahead of the curriculum and spent a lot of free time coding.
I still didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I could tell that software definitely piqued my interest. I learned most of what I knew from watching videos on YouTube. In the beginning, I just looked up videos directly related to what I wanted to know. After a while I started looking in the recommendations tab, taking a look at what else was out there.
This is the most prominent example of how the YouTube algorithm shaped my life. It showed me a video called “What is DevOps”. I have to admit, I didn’t get it. Even after watching the video I had no idea what “DevOps” was, and I shook it off. Then a while later, I got recommended the same video again, and I gave it another shot.
This time I got it. DevOps is a culture that merges two common, normally separated departments, to improve workflow in a Software Engineering context. I was hooked. I looked more into it, diving deeper and deeper. The more I looked into it, the more I knew that this was where I wanted to be headed with my career.
This happened with about a year and a half left of my degree. I started spending all my time learning more about this “DevOps” thing. Watched a video about it. Looked in the recommendation tab, saw another video. Looked in the recommendation tab, saw another video. YouTube had caught on to my interest, and started recommending more videos. More videos about “DevOps”, but also about subjects vaguely related to “DevOps”.
This is when I started watching many conference talks. One talk led to another, and I was expanding my knowledge more and more. With “DevOps” being closely related to what I was doing in school, I was also getting recommended videos about Computer Science concepts. I was now learning concepts that we wouldn’t be touching on in school for another six months.
At this point, YouTube was not only shaping my career, but it was contributing to being better in school, getting higher grades. I would’ve done well in school regardless. The interest was there, I was going to be spending time coding anyway. I’m not sure how much I would’ve expanded my knowledge though, without YouTube. I wouldn’t have been looking up most of the things I got recommended. I would’ve most likely only been digging deeper into what I already knew.
This simply wouldn’t have been possible, if not for the fact that my viewing habits and my interests are being constantly tracked. Looking back at the amount of time I spent watching videos, I’m not sure I would be where I am today. It’s easy to say that I would’ve surely discovered many of the same things anyway, but I’m honestly not sure.
Advertisements Have Changed My Life
One thing is how YouTube shaped my life. That’s just one example, albeit one that many can relate to. One that many more can relate to are advertisements. Everyone has a story of how they were talking to a friend about something, and suddenly Facebook is showing you advertisements about that very thing. This is creepy. There are no two ways around it. It’s creepy. But in some cases I like it.
A few years back I bought some earphones from a company named Flare. After I bought them I didn’t have much more to do with them. I didn’t buy more things from them, I didn’t look more into them, I was just using them. A while ago they launched a product called Calmer. A small in-ear device which they claim could reduce stress and tinnitus. Both things I deal with. They were fairly cheap, so I ordered a pair.
When they arrived and I put them in, my world changed. Sadly my tinnitus is not of the kind that they help with. But I did feel less stress. I did enjoy music more. I was feeling a lot more relaxed. This isn’t a product review, all you have to know is that these things changed my life, and still do to this day.
Had it not been for being tracked, I would not have heard about these. Flare is not a big company. Other than when researching earphones years back, and now in advertisements, I don’t hear about them. Yet I got shown this product that I cannot imagine living without.
This is just one example. There are many things in my life that I would’ve never known about, if not for personalized advertisements. I’m certain that someone is reading this and thinking “Ha they got you, you gave them your money!”. Yes. That’s right. But is that a bad thing? I don’t earn money just to have them sit in a bank piling up. I earn money to live the best life I can. Living my best life isn’t a matter of how much money I have, but being able to buy things that improve my quality of life sure is. I’d much rather be spending my money on things that directly improve my life, rather than waste it on a bunch of other stuff.
Am I Against Privacy?
No. I am not against privacy. I see how this article can be construed in such a way, and at times it sounds like a marketing manager pleading a case for why tracking is oh so important. My point here is that we sometimes lose track of what’s important about privacy; Choice.
In my opinion - and that’s what it is, an opinion - I believe tracking is a good thing. For those who want it. As I’ve hopefully made abundantly clear by now, I like being tracked. I like the fact that I can open YouTube or Netflix and instantly start watching something that I enjoy. I like being shown advertisements for things that I’ll be happy to buy. Some people don’t.
Some people don’t mind spending hours finding the right thing to watch, if that means Google doesn’t know anything about them. And that’s fine. We should all have a choice. Does this mean that we shouldn’t be doing anything about personalized tracking? Of course not! There are still many, many issues with personalized tracking. One of the main things I like about GDPR is that companies have to disclose data breaches within a set time. Also, I can ask any company what data they have on me, and they have to tell me. They also have to delete all my data if I ask them to. This is good!
I don’t believe the discussion of privacy should be a matter of keeping personal data out of the hands of companies. I believe it should be a discussion of doing it right. An analogy I like is that of driving a car. Driving a car is dangerous. Many people die in car accidents each year or get severely hurt. That doesn’t stop us from driving. It means we implement rules, laws, and structures around driving, such that it is safer.