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Privacy: the elephant in the room

Posted on: Wednesday 28th of January 2015

Today, January 28, is International Privacy Day, a day designed to raise awareness and promote best practices for privacy and data protection. Looking forward, we see four defining trends.

1. Privacy is a personal setting

When push comes to shove, only the individual knows what information he or she feels comfortable sharing with who, in what context, for what purposes. The days of tablet of stone, one-size-fits-all ‘privacy policies’ announced by organisations in a top down manner as the terms on which a relationship will be conducted are numbered. Blanket privacy policies are being supplemented and, increasingly, replaced by mechanisms and processes by which individuals can set and change their preferences and permissions; where individuals can exercise increasing degrees and levels of control.

For organisations this is both a challenge and opportunity. The challenge is to build the technology, infrastructure, processes, user interfaces and user experiences that enable individuals to exercise this control if they want to. The opportunity is to build both the trust and the means that drives increased, trust-based, value creating data sharing between individuals and organisations.

2. It’s innovation and growth VIA privacy, not OR

Currently, many people have fallen for the lie that our society has to make a trade-off between privacy and economic growth: that organisations’ access to personal data is the key to innovation, which is the key to growth, and that this necessarily involves some compromises around privacy. The opposite is true. Without the trust that comes from privacy, data collection and use is becoming an increasingly toxic source of mistrust and conflict. If this continues, by one means or another, data-sharing will be restricted – and along with it, opportunities for innovation and growth.Trust is the glue by which personal data and innovation and growth are held together, and trust comes from privacy.

3. The word ‘privacy’ is unhelpful

Privacy has become a blanket term that covers a wide range of very different issues (from identity theft to civil liberties-threatening surveillance by security services). Each of these issues has their own complexities and solutions. Talking about ‘privacy’ in the abstract doesn’t help address them.

Also, the term ‘privacy’ smuggles in an assumption: that all the issues and opportunities relate to organisations collecting data about people. This rules out the alternative scenario that individuals might collect data about themselves and use this data for their own purposes. The ‘privacy’ debate doesn’t even countenance the possibility that personal information might be a tool in the hands of individuals, as well as organisations.

4. It’s about value

The real issue is not ‘privacy’ but value – how personal data is used to create value, by who. The big – seismic – shift that’s currently building momentum is that personal information can be, and is becoming, a tool that individuals can use to add value in their own lives – to help them manage their lives better, make better decisions and get stuff done more efficiently and effectively. This is a massive service opportunity (for what we call PIMS or Personal Information Management Services) which takes the concept of ‘privacy’ for granted – as a launch point, not a ‘problem’.

The elephant in the room is the potential value of personal data to persons. Once we recognise this potential value, the ‘privacy debate’ is transformed.