Over the last year, we’ve all been increasingly aware that our privacy is being severely compromised by the tech companies in our lives. A barrage of negative press about Big Tech’s approach to the privacy of its users was prompted first by Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal and moved beyond to look at issues that had to do with the violation of privacy of everyone from Google to PayPal. So late last week PayPal’s Venmo division let it be known that that they “might” turn off a feature that automatically posts your payment transactions to a public feed – unless you manually turned this feature off. This was supposedly in an effort to protect people from unknowingly posting their private payment info in the public sphere.
The need to turn off a feature that was so central to its success – i.e. the social nature of its payment app that helped legitimize and viralize it – is the result of a barrage of negative press spotlighting all the bad behavior that Venmo cultivated. This was spotlighted by a comprehensive and damning study conducted by a privacy researcher based in Berlin who was able to easily track the lives of millions of users solely on the basis of how and what they shared on Venmo. As reported by CNN Money – “Of greater interest, or concern, might be that Do Thi Duc read several intimate conversations between users in the comments section, and identified more than one million unique last names. She also learned a lot about people’s eating habits, like the woman with several friends in Mexico City who racked up 2,033 transactions for sodas, pizza, coffee, booze, and donuts in eight months.”
That qualifies officially as “scary stuff.”
And yesterday, Wired took it a step further and actually told its readers that it’s time to stop sending money on Venmo!
What stood out to me when I read all of this (as the CEO of Mezu – the first payment app that was built from the ground up to protect people’s privacy in their financial lives) is not the fact that PayPal was considering to close down the public feed in Venmo, but rather Silicon Valley’s sheer inability to judge the public mood regarding issues of privacy violation by Big Tech — PayPal included.
What I believe is at the heart of the issue is not “this or that” feature in “this or that” app, but rather the enormous access that tech companies have to use this data with very little governance or concern. Collecting personal and private data exposes Big Tech in both their disconnection from the ‘real world’ as well as the actual existential nature of this practice to their businesses (i.e. their whole business model depends on it). In other words — no amount of public contrition and changing this feature or that switch will actually mean much.
What we need is a whole new generation of technology that will not pursue this kind of business strategy AND a whole refined mindset by users around the world who understand that nothing is really “free.” There is a massive need for an awareness campaign on the issue that there IS a price to pay for ‘easy’ and ‘free’ access.
Long term – that price is the relinquishing of the thing that most of us hold very dear: the unique character of our individual lives as expressed by the information that makes up the private domain of each and every life.
We might have to start thinking that paying $$$ for something is ultimately cheaper!