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How millennials think about privacy

When a pair of boots follows a buyer around cyberspace

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  • Written by  Amrita Vir
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  • Comments:   DISQUS_COMMENTS
UNconventional Wisdom is a periodic guest blog where the conventional wisdom is held up for fresh inspection. If you have some "UNconventional Wisdom" to share, email UNconventional Wisdom is a periodic guest blog where the conventional wisdom is held up for fresh inspection. If you have some "UNconventional Wisdom" to share, email [email protected]

This guest blog comes to Banking Exchange from the website of Jo Ann Barefoot, noted consultant, frequent contributor, and member of our Editorial Advisory Board.

This is our first post by a guest blogger, and a very special one. Most of our readers know I’m at Harvard this year as a Senior Fellow in the Kennedy School’s Center for Business & Government, working on a book on financial innovation and regulation. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have a very talented graduate student, Amrita Vir, as my research assistant. Amrita is a candidate for dual MBA and Master of Public Policy degrees here at Harvard. She’s from Texas, a graduate of Southern Methodist University, and former consultant who has traveled extensively throughout the world.

One day last fall we were brainstorming about the book, and she told me a story illustrating how millennials think about privacy. I asked her to write it up and, even though our Boston springtime has now made her account slightly out of date, I’m sharing it with you as food for thought. —Jo Ann Barefoot

I recently moved to the Northeast from Texas, and the weather is a little different here. By that, I mean it snows here, and I am inadequately prepared. Last week, I was browsing through Amazon to try to find a pair of boots that were both impervious to snow and aesthetically pleasing. This was a difficult task, but I finally settled on a pair of maroon Sorel’s that looked pretty acceptable.

And then I got distracted doing schoolwork and completely forgot about the boots. I blame the over-consumption of information for my ADD.

Anyway. A couple of days later, I picked up my boot-shopping task. I spent a good 30 minutes digging through Amazon trying to find those boots, but they were nowhere to be found. How on earth was I going to find these boots again?

And then I thought to myself—who knew that I lingered too long on that Amazon page?

Who would know that I really wanted to buy those boots?

Who knew that I got distracted and unintentionally lost the page in the internet cosmos?


So I popped open a new tab, typed in, and scrolled down until I reached the ads. Alas, there they were. My maroon Sorel’s were right there, ready to be ordered and delivered with my Prime delivery service two days later.

You see what just happened there?

Apparently, I have so much faith in the magical powers of the internet that this was the most logical course of action for me.

I don’t think twice about the fact that not only did Amazon collect data on my movements on their site, but that Facebook somehow got ahold of it and used it to push ads in my direction.

There is probably some price discrimination that comes with knowing my online shopping habits and history (if you saw my Amazon account, you would know that I’m a sucker for shoes, and this is also an example of me being a very easy target).

What does it say about me and my generation that not only am I completely desensitized to the fact that these companies are collecting my data and using it to manipulate my consumption?

What does it mean that I not only anticipated it, but sought the outcome of this behavior in the form of a Facebook ad?

Is this representative of a broader outlook on privacy and the ways in which we choose to engage with our technology?

In talking to Jo Ann, I realized that this is perhaps a generational viewpoint. Quite naively, I asked her exactly “why” people get so bent out of shape over privacy on the internet.

I guess I don’t see what the big deal is about the government or the private sector looking at my information, so long as they’re not using it against me. Don’t get me wrong, I want transparency about who is taking what information, but I don’t really mind anyone using it—especially in aggregate form and especially if it is ultimately helping me out—like helping me find my snow boots.

Maybe I’m shameless or desensitized or jaded. Or maybe I’m just a product of a generation that does not know how to define privacy anymore, or at least does not place the same value on it as generations past.

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