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Trade PII not privacy

There is an orthodoxy that privacy is willingly 'exchanged' by people in return for some sort of reward. Try Googling "trade privacy for" (with the quote marks). I got 181,000 hits! Among other things, people are said to trade their "privacy" for convenience, security, safety, cheaper loans and free phones.

Yet there's a category error here, one we really need to be aware of, in the interests of clear thinking and good policy.

Increasingly what consumers are doing is trading their Personal Information for a gain of some sort. And that's fine; there is a popular view that most people these days know what they're doing when they sign up for loyalty programs or provide their details when they enter a competition. That view may or may not be right, but it is a sensible position. The important thing is people can and should retain their privacy in the process -- because privacy and Personal Information (or PII) are not the same. Data privacy is a state where parties that hold information about you respect that information, and are restrained in what they do with it. Privacy requires that they undertake to not know more about you than is necessary, and to not re-use PII arbitrarily.

There is no inherent problem in bargaining your PII with others who happen to value it, but to preserve privacy in these transactions, we need greater visibility from retailers et al of what they intend to do with the PII they collect, and more sophisticated tools so consumers can fully comprehend what's going on. And we need greater precision in the way we talk about privacy. Let's be clear: there can and should be a fair trade in Personal Information, but not in privacy.

By analogy, remember that we trade money for goods without necessarily losing value -- unless the trade in question is unfair.

Which brings me naturally to the systemic breach of privacy committed by Facebook and the like in the way they harvest vast amounts of PII, without committing themselves to any Use Limitation at all, and without even telling their users what they're up to. For example, Facebook's privacy policy is silent on what they do with facial recognition in the background and with biometric templates; Apple's policy says nothing about how they use all the text messages and dictations harvested via Siri. These infomopolies make inordinate amounts of money on the back of PII collected without acknowledging its true value. That's the unfair bargain at the heart of most social media.

Posted in Social Networking, Privacy, Language


Francy MatthysSat 31 Aug 2013, 3:41pm

Content and care are individually free, I think.

But their properties can be easily misused when used also so collectively.

Like in putting too high value in own information, and blaming others for this.

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