Why Privacy Matters

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Christena Nippert-Eng, Ph.D
Illinois Institute of Technology

The paper was commissioned by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada as part of the Insights on Privacy Speaker Series

June 2011

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this document are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

Related video: Insights on Privacy: Christena Nippert-Eng and Alessandro Acquisti

When I consider the future of privacy matters, I see the same need that others do for switching to the use of state-of-the-art, privacy-protective technologies and practices instead of the older, less secure ones largely in use right now. Like others, I also see the need for developing and adopting policies that better protect consumers and citizens — in part, by insisting that more secure technological solutions are used. Overall, individuals need to be much better protected than they currently are — primarily from their own, uninformed behaviors, from the behaviors of criminals, and from the behaviors of corporations, given their ravenous appetites for consumer data and the profits that might be made from it.

However, I also see a need and opportunity for a concerted and clever campaign of educational outreach on a certain aspect of privacy that remains largely unidentified and unaddressed today: the issue of why, exactly, privacy matters.

Certain privacy messages have gotten good traction in the public realm in recent years. They include messages like “privacy experts are worried about your privacy,” “you should be worried about your privacy,” and “you should protect your privacy.” Yet we are missing the very foundation on which these directives should rest and from which they might become even more meaningful. We are missing a conversation about why privacy matters — from a very basic, humanistic perspective.

A public dialog about the vital role of privacy in individuals’ lives and in the lives of social groups is very timely, of course. The current cultural lag between our technological capacity to challenge and whittle away at privacy, on the one hand, and our traditional respect for and understanding of the need privacy, on the other, has created a bit of a crisis. New communication and information technologies are superb for publicizing things, for creating new public arenas and new connections between people. They are not very good for privacy, though. It’s not what they were designed for.

Accordingly, this time of cultural lag has also produced a unique opportunity to explore — in public, using public resources — the precise value of privacy to members of any society. It is a perfect time to revisit the issue of why, in fact, we should be worried about any face-to-face or hidden, electronic practices that challenge our privacy. I suspect that a public campaign with this as its central mission could play an important role in achieving the Canada Privacy Commissioner Office’s mandate.

There is a curious silence in the media as well as in political and legal circles about the fundamental reasons why individuals should gift privacy to others and why we should expect privacy in return. It is as if this matter is so self-evident, we simply don’t need to address it. However, an explicit exploration of this vital aspect of the human condition could provide a firm cognitive and emotional cornerstone for the development and proactive use of privacy-protective policies and technologies that are possible, yet do not seem to be gaining much traction. Such a conversation could help individuals more firmly comprehend, through ages-old understandings and practices, the essential principles that should guide us on current privacy matters. As the rate of technological change as well as the unpredictability of the nature of new technologies intensifes, it might very well help us address whatever decisions we face down the road, too.

Using this conversation as the entry point, one further possibility is to consciously link a collection of suggested, best privacy practices to this dialog. This collection would build on the excellent advice the Commissioner’s Office already provides but would reflect several additional, important tenets. First, privacy is socially-gifted. We possess privacy only when others permit us to do so. Others possess privacy only when we permit them to do so. Second, allocating privacy is a complicated balancing act. At various times, in various ways, there can be a real need to monitor others and to be monitored by them. Getting the gift of privacy right is a real trick. Third, privacy — both our own and others’ — is something that must be managed, constantly, in many, many ways. Fourth and finally, we understand, experience, and gift or withhold privacy through locally understood, traditional practices that range from face-to-face interactions with specific types of people to practices centering on designed objects and the built environment.

A new set of best privacy practices would include the kinds of existing recommendations we see for activities such as protecting and securing medical and financial data, for preventing and detecting identity theft and for controlling access to information posted through social media. But it could also include a new set of more explicitly social practices, based on the previous insights. These best practices would be suggestions for how to look out for others as well as one’s self, reminders to look out for customers and employees as well as the owners of the company.

Altogether, these practices would continue to help people and organizations protect their own privacy — as many of these practices currently do — but they also would help individuals and organizations gift privacy to others. As a more holistic set of privacy practices, they would reinforce the idea that protecting privacy is about socially responsible privacy practices, not just individually responsible ones. And by grounding these suggested practices in a better understanding of why protecting everyone’s privacy matters, the goal would be to make the importance of these practices more self-evident — and, perhaps, adopted more consistently and voluntarily.

As a subset of the Privacy Commissioner’s outreach activities, a successful campaign focused on the value of privacy would:

  1. educate the population and further encourage us to discover for ourselves why privacy matters,
  2. reduce the occurrence of poor privacy practices currently in abundance, and
  3. possibly result in the social and/or political-economic stigmatizing of people, groups, corporations and nation-states who intentionally choose not to follow respectful best practices. It could follow in the footsteps of a number of concerted, highly focused, public, and publicly-funded campaigns to address very specific social problems.

The highly successful, strongly television-based anti-littering campaign of my childhood, for instance, defined a problem and brought people’s attention to it, told them how they might help solve it, and resulted in the naming and ostracism of “litterbugs” for an entire generation — and for generations to follow. In combination with technological advances in waste management and public policies that mandated new garbage disposal practices — with penalties for noncompliance — the campaign was highly successful in significantly reducing this socio-environmental problem.

My own research suggests some answers to the question of why privacy matters. Privacy seems to equate with quite a few things that matter deeply to individuals. For instance:

  • Privacy = the chance to dream, explore, create and understand without anyone commenting on it
  • Privacy = the chance to find out more about — and hold on to — who you are
  • Privacy = healthy relationships with family and friends
  • Privacy = physical and emotional security
  • Privacy = the chance to make happy surprises for others and for others to make happy surprises for you
  • Privacy = choice — the choice to share/not share as you want
  • Privacy = the ability to do and say stupid/thoughtless/mean/embarrassing/shameful things and get over it
  • Privacy = the ability to have stupid/thoughtless/mean/embarrassing/shameful things done to or said about you and get over it
  • Privacy = the way individuals get to be autonomous, creative individuals yet still be members of social groups
  • Privacy = smooth interactions in public (we allow others and ourselves private behaviors, time, space, thoughts and beliefs, etc., so that public interactions can be focused, productive and not offensive)
  • Privacy = political power — anonymity, planning, collective action, Colonial America, Egypt!
  • The Gift of Privacy = a sign of trust
  • The Gift of Privacy = a sign of respect
  • The Gift of Privacy = a sign of friendship and compassion

These principles appear to hold true whether the social parties involved are individuals, small groups, corporations or nation-states, too.

A campaign explicitly focused on the value and uses of privacy might include any number of elements, from advertising and publication in the mass media to age-appropriate curriculum materials designed to further encourage individuals to think through the issues of why privacy matters. The Privacy Commissioner’s Office has already demonstrated significant sensitivity to and skill with these aspects of outreach, and could leverage that experience to address a new focus as part of their mandate.

Separate messages and modules could be designed to address different groups of people who may share certain privacy concerns or statuses in common. Tips for social media users might include items like:

  • Use your full system of communications technology for better privacy.
  • Never post when you are in a physically altered or unbalanced emotional state. (Write it, but save it. Look at it after a good night’s sleep. If it’s really brilliant and important to share, it still will be a day later.)
  • Consider using an obscure email address.
  • Before posting, ask what would your grandmother think about this? Or what would your boss or a college admissions counselor think about this?
  • Every once in a while Google yourself. Look for yourself. Search for what others are saying about you. What’s out there?

Take care of your friends. Take care of your parents. Take care of your kids. Take care of your customers. Google them. Check their privacy settings. Look out for the people around you. Gift them their privacy even when they don’t gift it to themselves and educate them about how to do better. If you see your friends posting something stupid, say something; don’t post their names or things linked to them; and don’t use the internet as a weapon — it’s there forever.

Allow those who care about you and who are responsible for you to know where you are — nobody else. Don’t post your location for everyone to see.

Tips for employers/employees, however, might further focus more specifically on how to keep the private and the public separate despite the current possibility of blurring those worlds.

From a curricular standpoint, a campaign on why privacy matters could easily include a publicly-available series of case studies, both fabricated and/or drawn directly from the papers, the neighborhood, our schools and our courtrooms. This is an effective way to get conversations going in face-to-face settings, whether the classroom, a television or radio studio, the church hall, or the dining room table. Naturally, the content would need to be adjusted according to the age of the participants.

For instance, a case study on Tyler Clementi might be a compelling and important item to discuss with young and older adults, but not with young children. (Mr. Clementi is the Rutgers University student who committed suicide after his roommate posted a live feed of his sexual activity on the internet.) A list of questions about each case, designed to provoke deeper exploration and realizations about the value of privacy would be part of this effort. For instance, on the Clementi matter, one might ask:

  • Why do you think his roommate did this?
  • Why do you think his roommate’s friends participated in this?
  • Could anyone have prevented the initial posting of the information?
  • Why did Tyler commit suicide?
  • Was he or was he not entitled to privacy?
  • Could anyone directly have prevented Tyler’s suicide? Who? How?
  • What if you had been Tyler? How would you have felt — throughout the entire scenario? Put yourself in his place from the moment he decided and began looking forward to his date to the moment when he discovered what had happened.
  • What laws, if any, protected Tyler?
  • What laws, if any, should protect us in cases like this?
  • Is law an effective deterrent and/or remedy to such violations of privacy?
  • What is the legal outcome of this case?

Fostering in-depth discussions like this might help enormously in bringing greater attention to the value of privacy as well as the value of policies and practices and technologies designed to better protect it. I believe that a concerted effort to raise awareness about the fundamental importance of privacy and of the kinds of best practices that emerge organically from a deeper understanding of it could have great value for the citizens of Canada. It could contribute significantly to the excellent outreach and educational efforts that the Privacy Commissioner’s Office has already made in fulfilling its mandate.

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