Don’t Let Privacy Fear Defeat Innovation

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Survival in a harsher age. That’s why we evolved to fear for our privacy. We needed somewhere secret to sleep, defecate, or have sex so someone couldn’t run up and club us while we were vulnerable.

Times have changed but we carry the fear like a vestigial wing. If we don’t stay conscious of our bias towards privacy, it could retard the progress of innovation.

Though closely linked, there is a difference between the need for privacy and the need for safety.

Keeping our credit card or Social Security numbers hidden protects us from real threats of fraud and identity theft.

Keeping the things we share to social media visible only to the right people protects us from judgement and discrimination. Unfortunately, there are many parents and employers who’d look down on or prefer not to hire someone who occasionally posts pictures of themselves drinking with friends. Everyone has to decide for themselves how much they want to share widely or publicly.

Keeping private correspondence concealed, like our emails or Facebook messages, is important too. It protects us from embarrassment or having our competition anticipate our next move. That’s why when a hoax tricked people into thinking their old Facebook messages had been published to their Timelines, there was worldwide panic. Luckily nothing was leaked. It was all a misunderstanding.

If a social network, website, device, or person exposes these types of information, we have every right to be angry. Violating our privacy in this way actually jeopardizes our safety.

But often times, people and the press are outraged by perceived “privacy violations” that don’t affect our security. This is dangerous because it makes innovators afraid to build great things that use our data safely or with our permission.

A year ago, Facebook began allowing developers to request permission for our home addresses and phone numbers. This could have powered apps that let us bypass entering our shipping information when making purchases or sent us emergency updates via SMS.

But before the new data-permissions capability could even be used, the press and politicians declared it an egregious privacy violation. They misconstrued it as apps stealing this information, not asking for it. They jumped to conclusions and worst-case scenarios of home invasions and telemarketing spam.

Instead, if allowing adults to make decisions about how their info could be used, the fearful forced Facebook to backtrack and remove the option. To this day, it hasn’t been reinstated. Great, useful apps were not built because of fear.

Then this week, it came to light that Facebook mechanically scans private messages for links to websites. If Facebook finds a link to a site hosting a Like button, its Like counter is increased. Our names and faces aren’t shown in the Like button, the link isn’t published to our profiles, and nothing publicly connects us to the website.

Still, this unleashed a wave of outrage from many outlets, including The Next Web (who broke the story), and even my fellow TechCrunch writer Drew Olanoff. Why? This supposedly crossed some philosophical line on what is private. No matter that increasing the counter helps accurately reflect whether people are interested in that site, and that it’s done completely anonymously.

These examples are the panicked flapping of the vestigial wing of privacy fear. And unfortunately, with privacy being such a hot-button issue that draws clicks, news outlets are incentivized to prey on it.

As Sheryl Sandberg said this week, when caller ID first came out, it was declared a violation of privacy. In more recent memory, the Facebook news feed and Timeline both stirred hysteria. With time, though, we recognized these as change, as the future, and not as violations or things to be feared.

The world and technology in particular continue to hurtle forward at an increasing pace. We will be faced again and again with the question “is this a problem or is this progress?”

I urge that we stay conscious of our instinctual preference for privacy and strive to remain critical. Otherwise, we risk shouting down what we might one day appreciate.

[Image Credit: Memo Angeles – Shutterstock]