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Privacy as a personal setting

Posted on: Monday 9th of July 2012

At the recent World Economic Forum Tiger Team meeting in London I gave a short presentation on the commercial opportunities opened up by empowering individuals with data. (If you want a copy of the presentation, please get in touch).

I outlined four unfolding trends:

  1. Information as a tool in the hands of the individual – a ‘phase change’ (as WEF’s William Hoffman put it) from the old status quo where information was almost exclusively a tool in the hands of the organisation.
  2. Individuals as managers of their own data. This is driving the rise of new markets such as the market for personal data stores (see our recent report on this).
  3. Individuals as the natural point of integration of information about themselves and their own lives. This contrasts with today’s status quo where data about each individual is dispersed across hundreds (probably, thousands) of separate and isolated data silos, with each silo defined by the boundaries of different organisations.
  4. Privacy as a personal setting. Only the individual knows what information he or she feels comfortable sharing with who, for what purpose, in what context.

This last one – privacy as a personal setting – is the one that got the most push-back.

James Leaton Gray from the BBC pointed out that privacy is a social construct: peoples’ attitude towards privacy were very different in Roman times to what they are today. John Harrison from PIB-d argued that privacy is a negotiation, with two sides agreeing what information to share, for what purposes and benefits. And Carl Kalapesi from WEF cautioned against black/white absolutist positions. If individuals have an untrammeled right to choose not to share information there might be social costs. Medical research relies on the ability to collect large amounts of sensitive, private data about individuals, for example.

These are all excellent points. But in the current situation I think it’s worth keeping with ‘privacy as a personal setting’ for two reasons.

First, ‘privacy as a personal setting’ represents a timely challenge to organisation-centric assumptions; that it is organisations that write the rules under which data will be shared via take-it-or-leave-it privacy policies.

Second, it shifts the focus of debate: from the content of the data sharing terms (which always varies according to context – another key point that came out strongly in the Tiger Team sessions) to process.  Privacy as a personal setting turns our attention to the question – ‘what are the tools and mechanisms via which individuals can articulate, tweak and change their permissions, preferences and so on?’  It focuses on practical, operational tools and processes, not on abstract ‘policy’ issues where the debate can never be finalised because the answer is, always, ‘it depends’.

Also, having thought about it, I think ‘privacy as a personal setting’ is consistent with the points made by James, John and Carl.

Yes, privacy is a social construct, but individuals express these norms via their individual choices and preferences. Privacy as a personal setting enables them to do that.

Yes, information sharing is a negotiation, but privacy as a personal setting gives individuals the ability to not share information. It is one of the means by which the negotiation happens.

Finally, to Carl’s point about the need to recognise trade-offs between different parties’ rights, again I agree. But this makes it all the more important to establish the default position. ‘Privacy as a personal setting’ places the onus on other parties to give very good reasons as to why the individual’s right to exercise control over the usage and sharing of their personal data should be curtailed.

That’s the sort of default setting that’s needed. It’s one which builds individuals’ confidence in the fairness of the process and, which, perhaps counter-intuitively, means they are far more likely to be willing to volunteer additional information than under any other scenario.

Alan Mitchell