Privacy is Precious

Recently I had an unpleasant privacy experience. I went to buy a concert ticket for my mother online and as part of the checkout process I was required to provide my date of birth and my gender! I was baffled and annoyed. What possible good reason could they have for this? It wasn’t an age-restricted gig and in any case, they didn’t ask for my mother’s date of birth but mine! I can think of plenty of bad reasons:

  • better profiling of their customers,
  • making it easier for them to market their product

But none that supports making providing this information mandatory to buy concert tickets. I had a similar problem when trying to buy school stationery for our son – the only method the school supported involved using a payment provider in the USA who demanded a bunch of personal information, and whose privacy policy was pretty awful.

For me these small issues are part of a mounting wave of indignities against our privacy. Many people conflate privacy with confidentiality or security – especially in the cybersecurity industry. And, many of the most significant privacy incidents indeed are those that involve theft or disclosure of personal information (often due to poor security). However, when I think about the major trends that have affected privacy over the last few years they haven’t involved this. What they have involved is the creeping over-collection of data about us. This has become an almost ubiquitous phenomenon – so much so that so many companies demand quite significant personal information from us under the guise of making their services better and we don’t even think twice about providing it.

My privacy is precious. And this isn’t just about people not accidentally giving my information away. It’s about being in control of who knows what about me. It’s a way of preserving my autonomy – being in control of my life and in control of what the good life is for me – my personal life project – not blindly accepting someone else’s.

It’s not just that I don’t want my personal information captured and used by bad guys. I don’t see why these other people should have it. The mere fact that they have this information means that bad guys have another avenue to get it, but also I don’t want just anyone knowing when my birthday is, and how old I am, or what my music taste is, or what I like to buy. I want to choose to whom I give that personal information. I don’t want to be forced to give that away. I don’t know how they are going to use it – but I’m certain it’s for their benefit and not mine. And at worst I know they are going to use that information basically to manipulate me! This is a crazy situation we’ve got ourselves into.

So this privacy week, do more than just worry about whether companies and governments are securing your personal information. Do something about the organisations that demand and use your information. Do something to show that your privacy is precious. The next time you get asked for some personal information – ask yourself whether you really want someone else to have it? What are they going to do with it? You can just refuse. Or, if it is something you can’t refuse – like a form on a website, you can do what I did with those concert tickets: lie…