• What is Privacy?

    June 20, 2011 • Privacy • 0 Comments

    Like others involved in the emerging privacy marketplace, I think a lot about what “Privacy” means. There are many ways to approach this question, and this post is just one of the ways that I have been thinking about answering it.

    When people talk about online privacy, what do they mean? Most “Privacy” concerns seem to fall into the general buckets of:

    • Will I be bothered by people trying to sell me stuff?
    • Will others think bad of me?
    • Will my property be damaged or taken?
    • Will I be harmed?

    The evolution of our concern for privacy is certainly a thought provoking topic (get started here and here). Back when humans built their homes in whatever cave they could evict the current resident from, a failure to keep private had immediate health concerns. If someone, or something, knew about my daily business, they could steal my food supply, my mate, my home, or my life simply by waiting for me to sleep in my usual place. It was a competition for survival, and the more you know of your competitor, the likelier you were to live.

    Concerns about harm to person or property are the ones that your primitive self, your atavistic side, still recognizes. Have you ever felt someone’s eyes on you even though you couldn’t see them? Has a co-worker tracked your actions so that they could gain advantage at the next meeting? Have the hairs on the back of your neck raised as you entered your credit card number into an online store? That’s your old lizard brain, Freud’s “id,” speaking to you.

    That old lizard shouldn’t be brushed aside. In today’s online world there are stalkers waiting to do you harm. One could be sitting next to you at the coffee house watching your WiFi packets pass by as you login to your bank account. Another could be hacking the travel website you’re using to plan next month’s 4 week safari in Kenya. That info could be sold to someone who will have a leisurely time emptying your house.

    We’re lucky that most predators are simple opportunists who don’t make a business out of such things. Most methods for evading opportunists involve common-sense precautions. Still, there are the few shadowy stalkers who greatly profit by invading our privacy. Evading all of their techniques is much more difficult, and could require one to go completely off the grid. As one old punch line puts it, “You call that living?”

    Given that the planning predator is rare, if you practice the simple personal security techniques aimed at circumventing the opportunists, you likely won’t come to the attention of the more cunning ones.

    The Electronic Privacy Information Center has a list of online resources that both inform and provide methods for limiting your online exposure. In addition to those resources, please also include our friends at Reputation.com, Personal Data Ecosystem and TRUSTe in your own resource list.

    While sensational and usually well publicized, it’s rare for online stalking to result in someone getting bashed over the head with a rock. Much more common is the type of economic stalking carried out by credit bureaus, insurance companies, catalog retailers, etc. Economic stalkers look for outliers in the population to target: Post about a rare disease with your real name, and you may look forward to difficulties getting health insurance. Friend the wrong organizations on Facebook, and you may watch your credit score go down.

    The casual online surveillance and taking of your personal data by behavioral trackers has similarities to that time when Gronk took Mord’s stone ax and flint supply while he slept. In the Personal Data ecosystem, data taken by others is an asset that is lost forever.

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