Like sex and money, privacy is something many people crave.
But in the digital age — with the insidious ease of online trackers, global positioning system devices and omnipresent security cams — privacy is becoming an increasingly rare commodity. The more rare something is, the more valuable it is. The more valuable it is, the more savvy entrepreneurs want to traffic in it — buy and sell, swap and pawn. And so we are seeing the rise of a new economy — commerce that works overtime to give the rest of us some alone time.
"We trade privacy for security," says Bob Garfield, advertising critic and author of The Chaos Scenario: Amid the Ruins of Mass Media, the Choice for Business is Stark: Listen or Perish. "We trade it for cents off at the supermarket cashier, so that Safeway knows exactly what ointments you use and in what quantity. Online, with varying degrees of awareness, we trade it for utility."
Every step we take, every move we make, somebody's watching us. "Google searches, Foursquare check-ins and even basic browsing leave a practically neon trail," Garfield says. "And on Facebook, we trade privacy for a sense of community; we fear Big Brother, but we tell lots of 'little brothers' everything."
For the first time in human history, Garfield says, privacy is extremely scarce "and therefore should be increasingly valuable. I'd call it the Garbo Economy, for people who just want to be left alone."
The Price Of Privacy
More and more, people are experiencing the shadows of the past falling on their current lives, says Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. "We are already seeing companies that help remove specific content or, more often, strategically 'hide' it by overwhelming it on the Web with other content that masks its impact. But people will want more. They will pay for lives which take them off the grid — that give them a sense of having a private self."
Here are some ways that entrepreneurs are profiting in the Garbo Economy:
* Privacy Clicking: If you want to use the Internet and still maintain your anonymity, it's going to cost you. The Electronic Frontier Foundation offers a 12-step program to protect your online privacy. It points you to, among other things, cookie eaters — programs that prevent long-term tracking of computer use — and infomediaries — software that disguises your identity and whereabouts from nosy cybersnoops. The EFF website links to big-buck online security firms, such as McAfee and Norton.
* Privacy Reputation Scrubbing: In a 2010 survey, Microsoft and market researcher Cross-Tab told us what we already know: Many recruiters — some 70 percent — have rejected job candidates based on their online misbehavior. Companies that take an eraser to the white board that is your life are popping up all over. For about $15 a month, for instance, Reputation.com will send you a report on your online presence. If you see a piece of personal information that you want expunged, you can pay $29.95 for the company's "Destroy assistance process." Other fixer firms such as RemoveYourName and DefendMyName offer similar services.
* Privacy Travel: For obvious reasons, it's a little hard to find vacation spots without Internet access on the Internet. But they do exist. On Petit St. Vincent Island in the Grenadines, for instance, there are no telephones and no TVs in the rooms. Guests communicate with the staff using colored flags on bamboo poles. Rooms are about $1,000 a night. The Hotel Monaco in Chicago features the Tranquility Suite, which publicist Katie Elliott describes as an urban oasis that offers a "blackout" option where guests can experience ultimate seclusion by voluntarily forfeiting all methods of electronic communication at check-in. The suite goes for $420 a night.
* Privacy Curiosity: Sure, paper-based newspapers and magazines are expensive. In most cities, a copy of the Sunday New York Times costs at least $6. But as you read old-fashioned, dead-tree editions of magazines and newspapers, your real-time reading habits cannot be tracked. This could be the salvation of traditional tactilely pleasing media.
Lee Tien of the EFF, a users' rights advocacy group, says he wants to protect his privacy when he keeps up with current events. "If I want news, I read the paper," Tien says. "If I'm driving, I listen to NPR; if I'm at my computer, I might go to the NPR website. I just want news. That I can be tracked at the NPR website doesn't change that fact."
This uninvited intrusion on privacy, Tien says, is why the Electronic Frontier Foundation supports "Do Not Track" legislation. The idea is that computer users should be able to use the Internet without fear of being digitally followed. Ideally, the legislation would work somewhat like the "Do Not Call List" laws that put a damper on telephone telemarketing.
Reclaiming Sacred Spaces
Turkle, who teaches the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sees a future of private email companies and private social networks. She says people will find ways "to participate in the bounties of the network without feeling one's sense of self stripped away."
Citing Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, who recently said privacy is no longer relevant to the social discourse, Turkle says: "I think he is wrong. I think it is becoming more relevant than ever as people begin to have conversations that are made possible by having had some experience of online life, experience that puts us in a position to take stock of what we have lost and what we are not, in the end, willing to lose."
She says, "Our experience of the past decade is causing us to ask: What is intimacy without privacy, and what is democracy without privacy? Both are in play and in some jeopardy. I believe that we will see them reclaimed, not for reasons of nostalgia but as citizens of a democracy reclaim their sacred spaces."
As consumers, will we shell out more money for clothes that don't contain radio frequency identification tags — smart labels that enable merchants to track the clothing? Will we pay a premium for off-grid restaurants that don't advertise to us and our friends after visits? Will we choose to pay more for a gallon of gasoline — using cash — so that companies cannot trace our movements?
And as investors, could the burgeoning privacy industry be the next land of opportunity? Wired magazine's Senior Maverick Kevin Kelly is skeptical — about the privacy, not the industry. "Privacy is mostly an illusion," he says, "but you'll have as much of it as you want to pay for."