Are We Having The Right Privacy Conversations?

People standing at the counter inside the DMV field office in Culver City, California.

People standing at the counter inside the DMV field office in Culver City, California. Alex Millauer /


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COMMENTARY | How we value our privacy has a lot to do with what we get in return. This is true in both the private and public sector.

A few years ago, it would have been unheard of for people to publicly share photos showing how much they’d aged. Today we are tripping over each other to post ours on social media; even when a new meme is likely an artificial intelligence training exercise, we barely pause to think about the implications. How is it possible for so many people to act so brashly with their data given the near constant stream of headlines announcing yet another information breach? Do we care about privacy or don’t we?

It’s time for a new conversation about privacy built on a new paradigm of personal data: one in which we’re honest with ourselves about what exactly we want kept private, and what we expect in return for our personal information.

Privacy, especially when it comes to our digital lives, is a vague term. We use it to reference collections of personal preferences, identifying information, and personal secrets. Each category of information has varying degrees of importance depending on who you ask.

In the end, much of it is contextual. We do not really care about the underlying data, but we do want a say over how it is used.

For example, skin color is often widely visible as we go about in public. At the same time, we may be hesitant to fill it in for a job application because we don’t know how the prospective employer might judge us. Individuals are often very proud of their cultural heritage, but I doubt anyone is okay with that data being used to deny them access to services.

This is where the common concept of privacy breaks down. About half of people are comfortable with a retailer anonymously aggregating the gender and race of store shoppers in order to target relevant discounts or with a search engine guessing your favorite sports team in order to find personalized results, but we simultaneously cheer investigations of political campaign ads that used the same data.

People supporting legislation that protects privacy, like the California Consumer Privacy Act and similar state legislation, are the same people who get their news through ad supported services and would likely balk at having to pay for calendaring tools. We like privacy principles when they are discussed in general terms but when there is an actual deal on the table—free email software in exchange for information about the movies we like to watch—we’re vastly more flexible.

Data for value bothers almost no one. Data used against us bothers everyone. Privacy discussions seem so complex because we don’t take the time to distill what’s really involved.

Like many other folks, I personally do not use certain online platforms anymore because I became disillusioned with their value proposition. Other vendors, however, collect much of the same data and do many of the same things with it, but give me services I find immensely valuable in exchange. Understanding, and perhaps more importantly admitting, the inherently transactional nature of privacy is the key to unraveling the complexity of these discussions. Being transparent about what we really want is the only sure way to get to a safer internet experience for all users.

This methodology applies especially well to government data. Cities, for example, often collect a great deal of information about citizen activity, particularly in the public domain (think transportation statistics or building permits).

The fact that this data exists makes many people uncomfortable precisely because they may not feel that there is a fair exchange. Governments collect information as a requirement for accessing many types of services but have largely failed to provide comparable value to citizens in exchange.

As the national conversation around privacy continues to evolve, governments must take seriously the need to enable citizen value from the data collected. This may be simple, such as turning on app-based payment portals. Or it may be complex, like optimizing subway systems based on human behavior. But in all cases, by providing substantive value built on citizen data, governments can make huge strides towards helping those citizens feel more comfortable with the data exchange necessary to move smart cities beyond buzzwords towards a data paradigm that actually improves quality of life.

Kjeld Lindsted is a product manager at NoTraffic.

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