Data Privacy

Privacy is inherently personal

I read an interesting take on personal privacy and control in the New York Times titled Privacy Is Not Your Responsibility.

The article’s main thrust is that any idea we have control over privacy online is an illusion, and it cites the case of the University of Alabama which is using location-tracking technology to see how long students stay at football games, with the aim of incentivising those who skip out early to stay longer.

The article’s author, Charlie Warzel, calls this a “truly consenting privacy invasion”, because the students know they are being monitored, and get something in return – in this case points, which can be traded in for tickets for the big games at the end of the year.

But, as he adds, “It may seem as if there are no real losers here, but as Adam Schwartz, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in the article, the app sets a bad precedent by offering an incentive for students to give up their privacy. “A public university is a teacher, telling students what is proper in a democratic society,” he argued.”

Warzel goes on: “Privacy is too often framed around choice and consent by those who are doing the invading. It puts the onus on the user. But the more I write and report on the issue, the more unfair this “personal responsibility” frame seems….To really change the privacy conversation, the burden of data protection needs to move from individuals to institutions…. For tech companies, it means not making us hand over our data as a requirement for participation in today’s internet.”

Certainly, we’re all for users being in full control of their personal data, and where it is shared. And yes, for too many of the bigger platforms, in particular, handing over personal details is a prerequisite for being allowed to use them.

But the whole point of privacy is that it’s personal – what one person will baulk at, another will have no issue with. Likewise with incentives – something that makes Person A want to share their data may leave Person B completely cold.

Fundmental to creating a more equitable internet is understanding that privacy means different things to different people. It means celebrating and enabling those differences, however far apart they may be.

Privacy is not one single entity we can pin down and solve. It evolves, twists and turns and has multiple difference faces. That’s why responsibility for it must lay with the individuals who create it because they, and they alone, should decide what they are happy for it to do.

Rather than an ‘everyone should’ approach, we need to design for an era where those who want their data privacy respected, or to be in control of it, have the tools at their disposal to do just that. Individually, themselves, not needing to ask permission of others.

Privacy is inherently personal, because privacy is what each of us makes it.