Privacy

There's a lot of talk in the tech media at the moment about privacy, but it's a word that to me doesn't really convey much useful meaning. Of course, it's referring to your personal information as is accessible online but what does privacy mean in terms of keeping you safe and in terms of providing online services that we all rely on? It's not actually all that clear cut; all of us want to provide certain information to each other. This is the very basis of online social networks. We wan't to provide information to companies that we know will profit from it because they offer us something valuable in return.

The obfuscated factor is exactly what information we're giving away and exactly who is using it and doing exactly what with it. There's a world of difference between the information needed to provide a service and the information visible to that service that is valuable. While we might be comfortable giving intimate data (such as family photos or our home location) to a service because it allows us convenience, we may not be happy if they pass that information to advertisers. We might however be happy with them using that data to further personalise the information they pass back to us.

I think the key to online privacy is anonymity — but it's not complete anonymity, it's selective anonymity. We don't necessarily want to be anonymous with the second party in an arrangement, but we want them to treat our stuff with a level of regard for our privacy, and we probably do want to be anonymous to any third party involved (say, advertisers). Regard for privacy in this case is definitely not greedily harvesting every shred of data available; it's cherry picking only those pieces that are needed. Sometimes 'needed' is legitimately not only the information that's needed to provide the service — a third party may be part of the funding arrangement and require some additional data. It's important that this information is again both selective and no greater than is essential and it's equally important that there is honesty about the information being collected.

It's important that we don't surrender our privacy simply because the abuse of it is so commonplace. We shouldn't have to accept that it will be eroded until it is meaningless. We need to be confident that when we elect to give up some of our privacy that our trust isn't being abused and we should be confident that the lines we draw to protect our privacy are not being crossed with impunity simply because we can't see what's going on. This accountability is only achievable if we push back against those we suspect of taking advantage of their access to our lives.