The latest on our data privacy

By Anne Collier

There has been a swirl of news and activity in the area of privacy – including a new FTC report on “Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Chance” – so if you’re anything like me and trying to get a handle on how it’ll actually affect you and your kids, here’s a really helpful, plain-English video catch-up from Jules Polonetsky of the Future of Privacy Forum at WebProNews on everything from “Do Not Track” (the FTC said it’s not pushing for legislation specifically on that, he said, and is fairly happy with industry provisions for users to opt out of any tracking); data privacy on cellphones, the lack of progress there having become a big focus of the FTC (here’s its latest action against RockYou); the FTC’s “really specific call for legislation” around how data brokers handle our data; and a very interesting discussion about privacy as a contextual thing (a doctor’s office, coffee shop, social network page, home, etc.) – and when companies can do something new with our data, such as use it for the functionality of a new feature or product, without getting our permission first). Polonetsky called this last issue “maybe the most important issue for the future of privacy and the future of data use that is going to be good for individuals and society.” He pointed to New York University professor Helen Nissenbaum’s seminal work on contextual privacy (arguing that the sharing or use of people’s data by itself isn’t the privacy violation but that violation occurs when data is used or shared in a way that’s inappropriate in a specific context (here’s her 2009 book Privacy in Context). Interestingly, social media researcher danah boyd has, in parallel, been talking about “collapsed contexts” in social media – how we used to say certain things to certain people in certain contexts, and now we can be saying something to all sorts of people in the single context of a social network site – which makes questions around “big data” and data privacy particularly puzzling at this point in history. What’s not puzzling but needs to get clearer to consumers is how key we all are to our own privacy protection – when we unthinkingly share information about ourselves and others that can be shared, copied, and pasted out of context. To place all our expectations for data security on industry and regulations is simply illogical in a user-driven media environment – a false hope. [Here’s a post of mine about privacy in context last summer.]

So this is a watershed moment – though a fairly long moment, since it’s highly unlikely any legislation will be passed in an election year. What I heard Polonetsky saying is that it’s a moment when both government and industry are working to find the right balance of privacy and innovation and when the industry needs (and seems to be realizing that it wants) to show both policymakers and consumers (you and me) that it understands our concerns about data abuses by taking reasons for concern “off the table.” As he put it, it’s becoming crystal clear that “big data” really cannot afford to be perceived by policymakers, consumers, news reporters, or anybody else as “big evil.” [For my latest coverage of data privacy, see “And I thought *last* week was data privacy’s tipping point” and “FTC finds kid apps’ privacy practices ‘disAPPointing’.”]

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