Some Further Thoughts On Privacy

The US has a (largely religion-driven) abstinence-until-marriage movement; in some states, schools are not required to provide sexual education to teens, and where it is provided, abstinence from intercourse is promoted as the best method of maintaining sexual health. But a 2007 meta-study found that abstinence-only at best had no effect at all on teen sexual health, and at worst led to higher rates of sexually-transmitted infections: in communities with greater than 20% of teens in abstinence-only programs, rates of STDs were over 60% higher than in those of regular programs.

Ignorance of their options meant these teens were less likely to use contraception when they did have sex, were more likely to engage in oral and anal sex, and less likely to seek medical testing or treatment.

I worry that ‘total privacy’ advocates are causing similar ignorance in people online. An article in the latest Wired UK heavily hypes up the scare of your data being publicly available, but without offering any explanation of why that’s bad or how you can take back control, beyond blocking all data sharing. By promoting zero-tolerance privacy, encouraging people to leave social networks or uninstall apps that share data, total privacy advocates fail to educate people on the privacy options that are available to them, and ways they can use data to their own advantage.

Facebook, for example, has excellent explanations of how they use your data, filters and preferences that let you control it, and links to external websites that explain and provide further controls for digital advertising.

My concern is that, if you advise only a zero-tolerance policy you run the risk of driving people away to alternatives that are less forthcoming with their privacy controls, or making them feel helpless to the point where they decide to ignore the subject entirely.  Either way they’ve lost power over the way they control their personal data, and are missing out on the value it could give them.

And I strongly believe there is value in my data. There is value in it for me: I can use it to be more informed about my health, to get a smarter personal assistant, to see ads that can be genuinely relevant to me. And there is value in it for everyone: shared medical data can be used to find environmental and behavioural patterns and improve the quality of public preventative healthcare.

I’m not blithe about it; I don’t want my data sold to unknown third parties, or used against me by insurers. I’m aware of the risks of the panopticon of small HD cameras that could lead to us all becoming witting or unwitting informants, and monitoring of communication by people who really have no business monitoring it.

What we need is not total privacy, but control over what we expose. We need transparency in seeing who gets our data, we need legislation to control the flow of data between third parties, we need the right to opt out, and we need better anonymity of our data when we choose to release it into large datasets.

Knowledge is power, and I’d rather have control of that power myself than completely deny it a place in the world.

Sources and further reading