When Does the Real Privacy Backlash Arrive?

Big Brother is coming. And we're welcoming him. He's hiding in our email, our web searches, the banner ads that annoy us, and our kids' MySpace pages (that frighten us). But most of all, he's hiding in plain sight. You see, Big Brother isn't coming from secret government agencies shrouded behind dark tinted windows. He's coming from colorful buildings filled with bright young programmers who have whimsical company logos on their business cards.

I've written about this before. And now Google's agreement to purchase DoubleClick has gotten more people thinking about the company's privacy impact. Why? Because Google is gaining an even larger window into everyone's online activities. Rich Tehrani estimated that if the acquisition is completed, Google could end up with "access to the behavioral information of over 90% of web users".

Tehrani also provides examples of just how this data can be used, such as quoting a Yahoo executive who brags that his company can now "predict with 75% certainty which of the 300,000 monthly visitors to Yahoo! Autos will purchase a new car within the next three months."

So a handful of web giants are amassing thorough records of our online activities and learning how to turn that data into a full picture of our behavior (and likely future behavior). Scary stuff. Still, it doesn't feel like the general public really cares. Yet.

We haven't yet seen real public outcry and backlash against these privacy threats. Part of that is because the companies involved have good reputations (and deservedly so, in most cases). Part is because most of us assume that only "bad people" with something to hide have reason to worry about privacy. But these are just delaying the backlash, not preventing it.

At some point, a catalyst will grab the attention of the general public. It could be a security breach at one of the web giants, exposing so much information about so many people that we can't ignore it. Or it could be the story of how lost privacy has ruined one individual's life, told in such a way that we can't forget it.

I don't know what that event will be or when it will happen. But I do know it's coming. The giants of the Internet are on a collision course with the privacy of the little guy. And when it happens, it won't just be the privacy watchdogs that are complaining.

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