The Privacy Dilemma

The more of our lives that we put online, the less privacy we have. It is as simple as that. And this is a problem that will just get worse over time. You cannot be fully engaged on social networks, blogs, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, FriendFeed, and all the rest without opening yourself up to phishers, scammers, and identity thieves. Something to think about since today is Data Privacy Day.

I spoke with Peter Cullen, Microsoft’s chief privacy strategist, about some of these issues. People are perhaps more freewheeling than they should be with their private information online, and corporations entrusted with our private data are not fully equipped to protect it. As Cullen put it:

Information is not just a currency of value, but a currency of crime.

That is something we should all be more aware of as we go about broadcasting every meal, plane ride, and bowel movement to our “friends” on the Web. Microsoft recently conducted some focus group research to find out consumer’s attitude toward privacy. He was surprised to find common attitudes toward privacy across different age groups and demographics.  In general, people realize they are trading privacy for the value of being connected. Cullen summarized the findings for me.

  1. Sense of resignation.  Once their data is online, they know that it is gone.  They say, “I need to have this value, but I’m not sure my risks are being covered.”
  2. Calming Placebo Effect.  All the subjects are employing some technology like anti-virus or deleting cookies, but they are not comfortable these are the right tools.  It is like: “I’ll take this pill.  I am not sure if it is helping me, but I am just going to close my eyes and feel better.”
  3. Concept of shared responsibility. They held themselves responsible for their own information. But there was a lack of understanding about how their information is being used.

In the end, consumers can only do so much to protect their privacy: use strong passwords with a combination of letters and numbers; never share personal information such as credit card or Social Security numbers online, and be careful with whom you share your name, address, age, or gender; make sure all on;line transaction are encrypted; look for sites with privacy certificates such as TRUSTe before giving up any personal data.

However, Cullen cautioned against attempts to put too much responsibility on consumers to protect their own data. The companies that store and manipulate the data need to act more like stewards and less like open vaults.

To learn more about data privacy, here are a few starting points. Or you can go to Data Privacy Day events being held around the world today (Microsoft is hosting one at the San Francisco Public Library that is open to the public).

[Image courtesy of Hitchcock via CUA]