Privacy and the Terminator

17 March 2010

Great piece today by Steve Lohr in the NY Times (A1, above the fold) on How Privacy Vanishes online. Though the concept of digital litter and eroding privacy expectations have been around for a while, and are perhaps fodder for some of our more technology-phobic friends, family and colleagues, the story points to what I think is likely to be a big new battleground in DC. At what point should the government step in online and protect us from ourselves?

They already do to some extent with other forms of content/communication like films and games with rating systems and phone lines with do not call registries, but in some ways these are incoming rather than outgoing communications where we are voluntarily (phishing aside) for the most part divulging what used to be considered personal and private.

Where should the FTC, Congress or states draw the line on what’s acceptable – balancing individual freedom to share with protecting those individuals in spite of themselves? Having been a victim of banking fraud, I personally don’t want anyone guessing my social security number, but perhaps I’m already at risk given what I’ve put out there.

It’s going to be interesting to see how new tech dynamos work with government to find that balance. I’m sure it’ll be a full and frank discussion to borrow some diplomatic speak, but perhaps the discussion in itself will help educate a broader swath of people about the risks of some of what they’re putting online.

For companies in this space, start communicating your point of view now if you aren’t already, and talk about the options you’re giving your customers, and the ways you’re protecting them. Given the Whac-A-Mole style of politics at time, I’m not sure how much longer online companies are going to be able to get away with an approach of “ask for forgiveness not permission” when it comes to privacy. Though Google and Facebook are two prominent examples of firms dealing with these issues, they won’t be the last and at least they’ve built up enough trust, brand recognition and goodwill to make adjustments without too much damage. Can we say that about most companies grappling with these issues?

Perhaps we all just need to go off the grid like John Connor…? 

Is this what we can expect if we share too much online?

Is this what we can expect if we share too much online?

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One Response to “Privacy and the Terminator”

  1. Leigh Nakanishi

    Interesting post, Duncan. This story was timed with the final of a series of FTC Roundtables on privacy. I had the pleasure of attending the last one at UC Berkeley.

    I think the fundamental question is if people are aware of the information that’s being collected about them online (both what they are sharing themselves and what is collected by online companies) and how it’s being used.
    It’s less about the government coming in and protecting us from ourselves and more about using the existing rules established by the FTC to ensure that companies are providing people with enough notice and controls. Indeed, this is an issue that is already getting a bunch of traction wit hthe recent series of FTC roundtables and Rep. Boucher’s legislation working its way through committee.

    To date, the privacy statements, which are the primary way people are told about their information, have proved not to be sufficient in giving people the information they need to make informed decisions. There is a group of companies working to address these issues. http://www.huntonfiles.com/files/webupload/CIPL_Use_and_Obligations_White_Paper.pdf

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