Privacy and the Digital Lifestyle

In light of the PRISM leaks, and the revelations of the National Security Agency, we’ve all been hearing about the modern concerns regarding privacy, specifically within our digital lives. To those who may have not been paying attention for the past decade, these revelations may come as a surprise, but not for millennials. I’ve only ever been taught to keep my social security number private and secure, which may come to a surprise for some people. My address, my phone number, my likes and dislikes, my tastes and my turn-ons can all be found online for anyone with a reasonable enough (and I do mean Google search level reasonable here) aptitude. It’s all voluntary, and so far, it has all been to my benefit.

I don’t create a new log in, password, or user name every time I want to create a new account online. Instead, every time I log onto a site that requests my Facebook permissions, Google, Twitter, or whatever, I’m signing over the information I keep with those sources for the sake of convenience. Now, that isn’t so much of a problem when I can easily remove my permission and take control of my data. For most privacy advocates I bump into, that’s all they really want: the ability to say ‘enough’. I only have three or four accounts which are my keys to the web, thanks to embedded Google / Facebook / Twitter sign-in protocols. Does that mean I’m signing away my information? It does, if I had believed it was private in the first place.

For the majority of us, we are content to share our information with those companies or persons who may be interested, because most of it we have already written off as public. Addresses aren’t secret, being published in phone books and directories for decades. My phone number isn’t a secret, as it’s on my business cards, and any social network or web application that supports double-authentication already has it. As the recent PRISM leaks have shown us, digital privacy may be an all but impossible goal in the long run, and if we are to live digitally, it will be within a digital panopticon of surveillance.

So, what is the value of digital privacy anyway? All of my information is already available on the internet, and if I choose to release bits and pieces, I am rewarded with convenient login tools, websites that can translate my content across different mediums and even coupons for lunch. My generation is less and less apt to demand privacy. Instead, we want control of our data. To us, social networks online can be just as real as those connections made in real life, when sitting in front of another. In fact, as anyone who’s ever tried online dating can attest to, sometimes it’s just easier to be honest to your computer screen compared to another face.

And that’s just it. For all of the hoaxes, phishing scams and fears placed into us by the media or those who came before us, we are more willing and more able to trust someone over a computer screen than someone in front of us. Maybe, it’s just because we can examine them from the comfort of our own homes.

I am a Millennial

I am a millennial. Twenty-one years old, I have never not known what it means to be connected. I have always had access to a computer, I haven’t had a land-line since 2008, and I haven’t had cable since 2009. I spend more time on social media per day than I do in real-life with my friends or coworkers, and I’m not afraid to speak my mind on those social networks where I might have been hesitant to speak up in my personal life. And yet, my peers are the highest-unemployed demographic in the country, and I have a brand-new private college education in a field that I doubt I will ever enter. I am the profile of your average millennial.

Why am I explaining all of this? Because, at this very moment, thousands of market research professionals are trying to figure my generation out: what makes us tick, why we shop the way we do, and how we interact with brands. We’re resistant to traditional forms of advertising (I haven’t had a magazine subscription in my life, and we miss out on all of the cable advertising by watching Netflix and Hulu), we’re aware that we are being targeted (I have two different ad-blockers built into my web browser) and yet, we leave all of our personal information, our likes and dislikes, lying around online like digital fingerprints. Our interests, our desires and our data are the elephants in the room for market researchers, and yet, there is still one component missing: mobile.

I barely use my laptop for anything but work, but I carry my smartphone with me everywhere. My cellular data moves faster and is more reliable than my home connection, so it’s my primary device for web browsing on the go or at home. Even my tablet is more desirable to use if I’m watching streaming content or simply browsing the web. If we see an email in our inboxes, we decide whether or not it’s important within a microsecond and then it’s either read immediately or sent to the trash. When it comes to work, I live on the same device, with emails and notifications coming from separate accounts all day, every day. My phone has more processing power than my home computer, and it’s surprising to find how little interest there has been in how I use my device and what I do on it. Every time you see a Millennial on their device, they’re not just goofing off or playing a game. More often than not, we’re connecting with dozens, even hundreds of our peers depending on the social network we’re engaged with at the time. Our friendships are stronger, and my brand loyalty is stronger, because of mobile devices.

Never before has there been a generation like mine: constantly connected, sharing and willing to trust a brand with my personal information so willingly. I do a majority of my shopping online while on my phone, whether through mobile applications or mobile sites. This goes in stark contrast with Gen-X’ers and Baby Boomers, whose adoption rates are more spotty.  I work in the wireless industry tackling user issues and hearing about mobile experiences every day. I meet people who have never had a smartphone, and those who have had them for the past decade, who lack the willingness to trust their information to their device, or understand how their information can be used to tailor information, advertising, or marketing to them instead of just another Joe-smartphone.

To understand my generation is to understand the future of mobile. I now own a smartphone and a tablet, but soon, I’ll probably go out of my way to pick up a Pebble smart-watch to deliver smartphone alerts to my wrist instead of my pocket. Or, I may decide the Google Glass headset will be more preferable. Either way, my generation is more prepared to integrate mobile and wearable tech into our everyday lives, and in ignoring the opportunities we may pose for your firm, you may be missing out on a generation of sharing, willing, and mobile consumers.


Cole Hanson is a recent graduate of Hamline University, and the Lead Technology Adviser with Tabla Mobile, a mobile research advisory service.