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The Price of Privacy

There's a new currency in town. No, it's not the Chinese yuan, the Japanese yen, or the European Union's euro. It's personal privacy, and each and every day we trade a little of our own for something we consider of value.

Take the supermarket discount card you gladly allow the cashier to swipe at the checkout line. For a few dollars in savings, you willingly tell the store exactly what you bought that day. Yes, there are people willing to pay good money to know your preferred brand of laundry detergent and frozen burritos.

Google informs you of websites that you would struggle to find on your own, but in return you allow Google and its partners huge insight into who you are and what you are interested in. Lord knows Google is very aware of my interest in expensive camera lenses and surf music.

Try this for fun: Put the words "Florida vacation" in your Facebook status and watch how long it takes before ads for hotels in Orlando start showing up in your news feed. For me, it only took about five minutes.

I think of this new currency as having graduated levels of value. As you move up the value chain, you give up a little more privacy in order to obtain greater worth.

At the bottom of the food chain is Web browsing. We regularly use search engines such as Google and Bing to find everything from Thai restaurants to that previously mentioned Florida vacation. We turn on Web cookies and allow our searches and site visits to be tracked. Right or wrong (mostly wrong), we feel a sense of anonymity and are willing to trade what we consider to be minor breaches in privacy for unfettered access to the Internet.

We then have the generic email address. By this I mean an email address that's only used to register for online goods and services. You don't use this address for personal or business correspondence. You register for the service you want with this generic address, but after registration, it's pretty much forgotten until the next unimportant online transaction. For instance, you might use this email address for a website that requires a registration before releasing a document. Once the download is complete, you have no further interest in the company or its services. The goal is that this email address doesn't point back to you in any meaningful way. For me, it's an old Yahoo address that I've had for years, but never use for actual emails.

Next in line is a personal or work email address that is used on a regular basis. You use this when you have a deeper interest in a company and want to receive updates on a regular basis. Perhaps you trust this company a little more, or the goods delivered are more substantial. In all cases, this is a highly used email account that references you in a more meaningful way than your generic address.

After this we get a little more personal and provide our name, home address, or phone number. These services must have significant value before we are willing to divulge this level of information. Perhaps we need a physical connection between us and the provider (such is the case for shipping) or we consider this relationship longer lasting like a bank or an insurance company.

Lastly, we relinquish access to our social media content -- photos, likes, friends, family, political and religious beliefs, taste in music, books read, movies watched, etc. Even though this one is often of tremendous value, a great many people seem to be willing to treat it as if it was a generic email address. Our personalities are typically contained in our social media content, and those quirks and oddities can be of great value to anyone trying to understand how to market and sell to us.

Case in point is the recent Facebook sensation of putting your most used words into an attractive, clever graphic. While it's certainly fun to see these things pop up on your friend's pages, what these people don't realize is how much information they are freely giving away to a complete stranger. Social media users really need to think twice before giving up their birthday, friends list, education history, IP address, and every photo they've ever posted, but sadly, 16 million people (and counting) did not.

Lesson learned? Be careful what you "like." Trojan horses can be found in the least likely of places.

It's funny how one of the last things we are willing to part with on the Internet is real money -- at least directly. The Internet generation expects everything for "free" and would rather barter with personal information than cash. The companies that have built successful online businesses realize this and deliver their services accordingly. Their goal is to ultimately receive cash dollar payments, but they go about it in a roundabout way of advertising and pull-through shopping. They entice you to their site with "free" stuff in order to categorize you and your buying habits. Once they understand who they are dealing with, they tempt you with links that ultimately lead you to entering a credit card number.

With all the recent news about the NSA's gathering of telephone records, it's important to think about privacy and what it means to you. Consider the worth of yours and who you are willing to give it to. In today's digital age, it's nearly impossible to function without an online presence of some sort, but we don't have to relinquish everything in the process.

Now that the holidays are upon us and we move more and more of our shopping to online retailers, consider what you are sharing and how you would like that information to be used. You may even want to take a look at those privacy statements you agree to without ever reading. There may not be anything nefarious in them, but doesn't it make sense to understand what you are trading away?

We've long passed the point where we have complete control over what we give out and how it's used, but there is no reason to throw in the towel and give up. Think twice before engaging in those silly Facebook quizzes. Use burner email addresses. Read the privacy statements. Don't be afraid to walk away from a "free" service. You have more power than you might realize.

Be aware. Know your worth. Pay wisely.

Andrew Prokop writes about all things unified communications on his popular blog, SIP Adventures.

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