A Requiem for Privacy?

January 23, 2017

A Requiem for Privacy? 

“You have zero privacy anyway,” said the rock star CEO of a major American tech company …. in 1999.  “Get over it,” he added.

This was even before mobile technology was ubiquitous and we used networked devices in every area of our lives.  We routinely “trade” personal information for “free” use of apps or other online services.  But they may come at an unexpected price, even higher than we thought in 1999.  It’s hard to know how a service provider will use your information.  And, once you provide the data, they are out of your hands.

That’s why data privacy awareness is becoming more and more important.  All of us need a better understanding of how our private information is collected, who accesses it, what it’s used for, and how long it’s retained.

Consider the fact that data can be stored indefinitely, meaning your information could eventually be used in unwelcome or unintended ways. Cloud technology migrates personal information once stored on owned hard drives (photos, music, documents, etc.) to remote servers managed by various companies.  Do you know their privacy policies and have you agreed to terms of use that enable a company to use your image, for example?  What about in the future when you become world famous?  Should a company profit from a college photo stored in the cloud never intended to be shared outside your personal network -- even if you originally designated it as private? Even if you deleted it from their site?

Data brokers can use information directly “traded” from users, publicly posted on the internet, or contained in government public records -- of marriage, divorce, birth records, home purchases, or voting -- to draw inferences about any of us. And they can sell their conclusions to any willing buyer.

Algorithms that predict or infer may exclude you from various programs without your knowledge or ability to challenge the evaluative criteria.  

All of us have different ideas about privacy that might apply to these practices. Ask 1,000 people to define privacy, and you’ll get 1,000 definitions. Privacy is personal, it’s cultural, and means different things to different people and societies. Privacy can be:

  • our ability to control access to our personal information and activities.

  • about having the freedom to conceal aspects of ourselves from others.

  • about the individual freedom to choose what things we are willing to share and with whom we share them.

Perhaps one useful way of thinking about privacy is to consider your digital footprint as an “information wallet”-- personal information as a form of digital currency, when the individual is in control of its use.  Fair automation practices, that complement fair information practices, ensure ethical sharing with individuals the types of outside intelligence used when making decisions about them.

We need the right to keep certain intrusive, powerful players -- be they employers, banks, or insurers -- from monitoring every aspect of our lives, or basing decisions on unvetted or secret sources. Without reputation protection we can count on, we're consigned to a society in which we are monitored ever more closely but have no chance of inspecting, challenging, or correcting data that is collected and analyzed to make decisions directly impacting our daily lives.