Privacy – Does it Really Matter?

Stephen Fells

Stephen Fells

Increasingly, especially when discussing Digital Identity and social media, the issue of privacy arises. One common objection I hear is “I don’t want everyone to know my information” and when I hear this statement I can’t help but feel that it’s an overly simplistic view of things. Is it?

I admit I get a little frustrated when people simply repeat what others say without giving it some personal thought. I suspect that in many cases this is exactly what is happening when people throw out this particular objection especially when it is combined with ever fashionable commentary trashing social networks. The real vitriolic criticism is aimed at Facebook (one gentleman I met referred to Facebook as “privacy cowboys”) and Twitter (“I just don’t get it” – same guy).

I know this won’t be popular but I think these opinions are more than overly simplistic, I think they are naive. To conversationally put privacy into a box is natural because we humans like things in boxes but the truth is privacy, like many things, is gray. Let me give you an example.

If I asked you “How much did you earn last year?” you would, quite understandably, tell me it’s none of my business. But if your financial adviser or accountant asked exactly the same question you would answer it without hesitation. Same question, different relationship. Two things matter in this instance; control (you want control over who sees your information) and value (you need to benefit from the exchange).

This particular example could be criticized, your annual salary isn’t freely available online, but I think it’s valid because we can extend it to lots of other personal ‘data’. Do you want to share all your vacation photos with everyone? Who is ‘everyone’? Just Facebook “friends” or anyone that can access Google? Do you know all of your online contacts equally? Would you share those same vacation photos, especially that morning shot of you on the beach in a swim suit drinking a Bloody Mary, via LinkedIn?

I could ask many, many more questions like this and they would all make my point. As you actually begin to think about privacy and what information you want to share you will reach the following conclusions:

  • You don’t want to share all information with all people but you do want to share some information with all people.
  • For an increasing number of people a lot of information about them is already online.
  • You are willing to give up very personal information and will waive all privacy if the return is worthwhile.
  • Privacy is gray.

Let’s take this a step further. Have you ever ‘googled’ yourself? Consider that whatever you find is also what everyone else finds. And when they see or read it they will form an opinion about you that might be good or might be bad. They will decide how ‘technical’ you are, how much you know about marketing, how professional you are. Perhaps they will even form an opinion about your very character. And it doesn’t matter if their opinion is right or wrong, it’s their opinion and they will act (or not) on it. As a result the data that is available about online you today impacts you today.

Again, at the heart of the issue is control; we all need to be able to control who gets what information, or at least feel like we control that information. And the more personal that information the more control we want over it. So privacy isn’t good vs. bad, right vs. wrong or sharable vs. private. Like many things it’s relative. In fact privacy, at that moment of an online search, is a non-issue because people will form an opinion not only on what they do see about you but what they don’t see. Just consider Sam Fiorella. He didn’t get a marketing job because he didn’t have an account with Klout.

When I hear people ‘in the know’, especially social media guru’s, speakers, trainers and coaches, talk about the importance of privacy I can’t help but think of the following quote made by Red, Morgan Freeman’s excellent character in my favorite movie Shawshank Redemption:

“I know what *you* think it means, sonny. To me it’s just a made up word. A politician’s word, so young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie, and have a job.”

And so to this video from John Seely Brown, independent co-chairman of the Deloitte LLP Center for the Edge. In the video he interviews John Henry Clippinger, CEO of ID3, on social data privacy standards that foster a social media ecosystem built on trust and value creation. The question is do you see enough value to share more information with a wider, possibly global, audience knowing that information already impacts you?

My position is that privacy does matter, sometimes, and (with apologies to Red for the misquote) you need to either get busy sharing or get busy dying.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *