The Glacial Movement of Privacy and the Implications to Accountability

As we see more and more draft privacy law being introduced in Congress and in state legislatures, an increasing number of enforcement actions in Europe, and more media interest in perceived privacy abuses by big tech companies, it may seem strange to equate privacy to the consistent, continuous movement of glaciers.  The pace today seems very fast, and glaciers are equated with slow and steady movement.  Yet when a snap shot is taken of an iceberg cleaving off a glacier, the moment is dramatic and almost violent.  So, equating privacy to a glacier seems very relevant today. Glaciers slowly move but are always moving. And perhaps more significantly, they alter the land they pass over in permanent ways.

Glaciers change with the environment just as privacy changes with technology shifts. Today information privacy with sensor based observed data is more different than it was when the ancients invented writing six thousand years ago; just as glacial movement is different with global warming than it was at the end of the last ice age.  Like the movement of a glacier, a slow but immutable movement to rethinking privacy is underway, punctuated by the dramatic events such as Cambridge Analytica or the Equifax breach.

In a  recent blog Foundational Issues, the IAF posited that a key challenge to the debate going on with respect to U.S. privacy legislation is what do we mean when we say privacy. Today much of the public policy debate centers or is framed around concerns about the acceleration of data and their use. Linking solutions to the actual privacy interests in play tends to yield the best results. Yet a key challenge is that the interests as they exist today are still being aligned with the solutions adopted decades ago. 

Over the years, attitudes have changed with respect to privacy, much of which has been built around issues like data breaches, behavioral targeted advertising, tracking and the sale of data.  These concerns have resulted in public policy changes like the GDPR and more recently the California Consumer Privacy Act. Much of these legislative changes have either granted new rights to consumers or strengthened existing ones. More interesting, these policy changes seem to tie to an original and increasingly challenged principle that privacy is the ability of individuals to control their personal information. This explanation of privacy originally introduced by Alan Westin also aligns with the notion of privacy as an issue of autonomy and perhaps in looking back helped drive the reliance on consent in many parts of the world and the notice and choice regime in the U.S.

Over this period, we have grown conformable with the seeming dichotomy of the way consumers describe their attitudinal concerns around privacy and the way they behave. We have come to understand both ends of this spectrum can be true. What is interesting to note is that while many attitudinal studies have focused on privacy as an area of concern or importance, a recent study by Harris Insights & Analytics (2018 Societal ROI) asked the question “How important is it to you, personally, that companies work to truly make a positive difference?”


That privacy of data out ranks other issues that we typically associate as having impact people’s lives may be surprising to some. 

Thus, the analogy of privacy to a glacier appears to be even more relevant. In addition to expectations on companies, potentially more change,  is coming. The New York Times Privacy Project may be an interesting bellwether. It is difficult to remember a time when a major publication has so prominently and at such length explored issues round privacy. Continuing with the glacier analogy, a real potential does exist that people’s attitudes will change as a result of this expose.  Yes, this is a front-page exploratory series, but it is also giving new language to notions and issues bubbling around the numerous concerns being expressed. Some will correctly note that, relatively speaking, only a small percentage of consumers read the NY Times. True, but this is perhaps less relevant. Almost all politicians, their staffs and most people involved in creating public policy do read the NY Times. By extension it serves as a powerful voice and influencer.

One of the most interesting articles in the New York Times Privacy Project was by Charlie Warzol, “Privacy is Too Big to Understand”. In this article, Mr. Warzol notes “Privacy” is an impoverished word, too small a word to describe the many concerns in people’s minds such as data mining, transmission, storing, buying, selling, use and misuse of personal information. He goes on to say “In this way, the concept of digital privacy shares similarities with weighty crises like climate change. Both are what the theorist Timothy Morton calls hyperobjects,” a concept so all-encompassing that it is impossible to adequately describe”.

Perhaps the most significant part of the article was the quote of Matt Cagle, a technology and civil liberties attorney at the ACLU, who said “You are losing control over your life. When technology governs so many aspects of our lives — and when that technology is powered by the exploitation of our data — privacy isn’t just about knowing your secrets, it’s about autonomy”. OK, we are back to autonomy. But Cagle went to say, “Privacy is really about being able to define for ourselves who we are for the world and on our own terms”. It is the last part that notes a change.  As Warzol noted, “At its heart, privacy is about how that data is used to take away our control”.

The significance of this article is the demonstrative tonal shift in terms of how privacy is talked about.

Will this tonal shift and more assertive way to talk about privacy result in a change in both attitudes and behavior? Will this influence the glacial movement of change in public policy, not just in the U.S. but globally? Time will tell. But it is clear that Accountability based on Data Stewardship will be key for organizations. This approach, particularly for those seeking to create value and innovation through data, will not only position these organizations for a shift in public policy but, as importantly, for any shift in their customers’ expectations, attitudes and, maybe, behavior.

Perhaps, also a measure of inoculation to the glacial shift that is underway.

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