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Privacy Perspectives | Innovate Privacy for the Future, But Don’t Get ‘Privacy Twisted’ Related reading: The FTC’s privacy rulemaking: Risks and opportunities




It’s time to let go of zero-sum thinking about Internet privacy. Privacy is not dead or dying because of the advances in new technologies. The future of privacy may well be in danger, however, if well-regarded privacy professionals continue to suggest that “privacy is dead.” For example, in his opinion piece, “Old School Privacy is Dead, But Don’t Go Privacy Crazy,” Stanley Crosley, CIPP/US, CIPM, argues that people who go “privacy crazy” as a result of unauthorized collection and use of their data should simply accept that privacy is dead, and instead, appreciate innovations like television on-demand and other new technologies that might be prevented by the consent-to-use model; i.e., “Old School Privacy.”

Sorry, but it’s not an either/or proposition, and the thought of abandoning the notion of user-control simply invites control by others.

I agree that individuals shouldn’t be expected to read lengthy privacy policies for the use of technology in every aspect of their lives—nor do they—but I disagree that privacy as we know it should be twisted to meet such zero-sum thinking. We are not advocating that people go “privacy crazy,” but neither should they get “privacy twisted.” Privacy by Design (PbD), as a framework, offers a positive-sum paradigm of privacy assurance to individuals by embedding privacy directly into technologies, business practices and networked infrastructure. PbD works proactively and does not expect individuals to read privacy policies, so suggesting they must do so to protect their privacy utterly misses the mark!

“Old School Privacy” is not what is being proposed. Instead, the PbD guidance and case studies available at show how privacy professionals are partnering with innovators on the use of Big Data and other technological marvels, without having to sacrifice an individual’s privacy. Instead of taking the easy way out and suggesting that privacy must adapt to technology—a dated zero-sum perspective—we have rolled up our sleeves to demonstrate  highly progressive examples of privacy being embedded into technology systematically so as to remove the burden from the individual to protect their own privacy.

Crosley’s argument to define “reasonable use standards” as an alternative is not cogent as it would no doubt lead to a “race-to-the-bottom” scenario. How would such standards be set, and by whom? Should the reasonableness of the use be based on the perspective of the individual, society or a company’s bottom line? The National Security Agency has argued that the secret collection of Americans’ data was reasonable at the time; however, even the U.S. president has now declared such collection to be unreasonable. Meanwhile, citizens have suffered immeasurable and irreparable privacy harms. Any scenario of this kind cannot rely on the individual’s reaction to gauge reasonableness as a safeguard because at that point it is too late—the privacy harm has already occurred.

There is in fact one thing which is fast becoming old school: zero-sum thinking about privacy. The "new school" is PbD—implemented and delivered at the scale of entire networks and ecosystems. A prime example is the Personal Data Ecosystem (PDE), an emerging landscape of companies and organizations that believe individuals should control their own personal data and who make available a growing number of tools and technologies to enable this. The starting premise of the PDE is that individuals control the sharing of their own “official record” and set the rules as to who can access and use their personal information, and for what purposes. If they wish, individuals can authorize the secondary uses for something in return, such as remuneration or a benefit of some sort. 

Lest one believe this is a privacy pipe dream, 36 of those companies have come together to form a new network, the Respect Network, based on a groundbreaking trust framework, the Respect Trust Framework, that won the Privacy Award at the 2011 European Identity Conference. Launching in 2014, the Respect Network will enable opt-in, peer-to-peer data sharing among its members—which will include both individuals and businesses—with the strong assurance that every member's privacy will always be respected.

This is how PdD can be implemented at Internet scale, and in ways that become self-reinforcing of the fundamental social contract that the very concept of privacy represents.

So I must deeply disagree with Mr. Crosley that privacy is dead—it is not—and that there is any argument whatsoever for letting go of individuals’ privacy rights. Rather, it is the insistence on those rights, and the innovation of how to respect them while still providing the benefits of new technology, that is the vanguard of privacy today. Expecting continued respect for an individual’s privacy is not “privacy crazy”—it’s only fair, and we should expect no less.


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