Privacy is Dead. Long Live Privacy!

posted by Chad Tragakis

Privacy in the Facebook Age – can we really have it both ways?

by Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Hill & Knowlton, Washington

The Queen of England joined Facebook late last year. I signed up early last month. It was a New Year’s resolution and I was officially out of excuses. If, at age 83, Her Majesty could do it, then I certainly could. I had my reasons for waiting so long, much to the surprise, chagrin and teasing of friends and family. First, the time crunch. I’ve seen how so many friends and colleagues practically live on the site, and how much it consumes some of them. But, more than concerns over time were concerns over privacy. How much would I have to give up to glean the benefits of the site and all it had to offer?

Facebook has had to deal with continued criticism, boycotts and legal action over allegations of violating user privacy. Some of this was related to the site’s wildly popular but seemingly innocuous gaming apps, like Farmville and Texas HoldEm. And Facebook is just one of many firms being forced to address privacy issues head on.

  • Google, a company with a strong track record in corporate responsibility, has come under fire on several fronts and in many countries for ethics and privacy issues related to its Street View technology featured on Google Maps. It also settled a class action lawsuit over privacy breaches related to Google Buzz, its social networking program.
  • There are concerns that photos uploaded to Flickr or Photobucket using the Exchangeable Image File Format can contain the GPS coordinates of where a photo was taken, compromising a user’s privacy and possibly their safety (or that of their children).
  • A Wall Street Journal investigation found that dozens of iPhone and Android apps can share personal information with other firms without the user’s awareness or consent.
  • Location-based and geosocial networking services like Foursquare present a host of challenges (check out pleaserobme.com for more on their push for greater awareness around locational privacy and over-sharing).
  • Video game systems, such as the Xbox Kinect, capture and store user profile information and share them with game developers.
  • Other growing concerns including scraping, where media research firms troll seemingly private chat rooms, social networking sites and discussion boards for personal information; re-identification, where aggregated and anonymized personal data is traced back to its owner; and Flash cookies, which can track a user online without their knowledge or consent.

There’s no question that new social networking sites and apps are great in so many ways. They are connecting (and reconnecting) us in ways we never imagined, they help inform and even educate us, and they certainly entertain us. In a way, these sterile, impersonal and technical platforms allow us to share and celebrate our humanity like never before. After all, these connections and relationships are what it means to be engaged and alive. But, they don’t come without a cost. And one of those costs, I am finding, is that with each new gain we lose a little bit of our privacy.

Privacy – for customers, employees and data – has always been an important facet of a company’s commitment to corporate responsibility. But, as technology has grown, so too has the focus on and importance of privacy.

How do we, as consumers and citizens, balance our desire for the benefits of these new technologies with our needs for and rights to privacy? Are current policies and limitations spawning a generation of privacy fatalists? Or do the old norms, mores and expectations for privacy just not exist anymore? Or is it both?

A bigger question may be, how can corporations balance their business needs – the seemingly endless benefits that come from these platforms and technologies, and the wealth of information they contain – with their legal and ethical responsibilities to safeguard consumer privacy? The Web Analytics Association, a trade group for internet data analysts, has launched a code of ethics for its members and supporters. It’s a good start, but some wonder how effective such a voluntary code can really be.

There is an increasing need for companies to meet market demands and win in the marketplace while also protecting, respecting and ensuring consumer privacy and navigating new laws and policies. I think most companies would agree that self policing is better than regulation, but Congress and the Federal Trade Commission (along with a host of other regulatory bodies around the world) are exploring a variety of “Do Not Track” provisions. These will certainly be game-changers if and when they are enacted.

In the meantime, the WAA code provides a solid framework, focusing on five key pillars: privacy, transparency, consumer control, education and accountability. A commitment to privacy rooted not just in legal requirements but in ethics-based and values-based criteria can have tremendous benefits for companies today. Such a commitment engenders confidence and loyalty on the part of customers and other stakeholders, manages risks, enhances reputation, and can even help increase sales. These benefits, however, must be balanced with the stark reality that we live in the age of data-mining and targeted marketing.

But just because consumers put their information out there, intentionally or unintentionally, doesn’t mean that they will tolerate the use of that information by third parties. Research clearly shows that Americans do not want to be tracked online. And so, we see a growing contradiction between many people today who vacillate between demanding privacy on the one hand, and on the other, practically posting their Social Security Number and blood type online. As a society, we seem to want it both ways, and this is fostering a new understanding of what privacy really means. Is it situational? Is it dependent upon the definition of the individual? I’m not sure we know the answer just yet.

And, while many of these concerns are related to social networking sites and new media, this isn’t just a technology issue. Every company in every industry should talk to its consumers about privacy. Consider, for example, the fact that more than 80% of teens and more than 40% of children ages 3 to 11 are now spending considerable time online. Or, the myriad issues looming related to increased use of RFID tags at the individual product level in supply chain management and inventory control. No time like the present to let your customers – as well as your employees, partners and regulators – know exactly where you stand.

Too often it seems, the corporate privacy policies we see – in publications, on websites, or mailed to us from the companies we do business with – are outlined in the finest of fine print. Transparency, clarity and frequency go a long way in establishing trust. When it comes to privacy, I don’t think it’s possible to over-communicate with your customers and stakeholders.

There are some excellent resources out there for those inclined to learn more, including: the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the International Association of Privacy Professionals, and Privacy Exchange.

So, with apologies to Her Majesty, to borrow from the centuries old proclamation Le Roi est mort. Vive le Roi!, as one king passes, another ascends. As one construct of privacy leaves us forever, a new one is taking shape. Responsible companies, and those that will thrive in the Facebook Age, will take heed.

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