Before social networks and the internet, living behind our net curtains was relatively easy and safe. Today it is all too easy to invite the world into our living room, or indeed to broadcast what happens there to the whole world. Or is it – has that much really changed?
The knee-jerk response for many to the frequent stories of data loss is to try and clamp down on any service providers, organisations or applications that collect and use personal data – but to do so would massively curtail the utility and effectiveness of many of the internet sites and functions that we now take for granted. The fact of the matter is that to deliver the personalised, user-friendly services that we appreciate; personal information needs to be shared. And we’ve always understood this – the only thing that has changed is the scale.
There has always been a three-way trade off between the individual’s ‘right’ to privacy; states’ and organisations’ need and desire to know more about you; and our own inclinations to be recognised and included. The right to pursue your own interests and affairs without interference has been supported in principle (although not always in practice) since the middle ages at least. But at the same time, it has been understood for almost as long that some information must be shared in order to participate in society (parish records, electoral rolls and many other government and commercial documents require significant amounts of personal data). On top of this we are all in the habit of sharing personal information for better service and acknowledgement (even if just sharing name and address for paper delivery).
And there has always been risk involved in these trade-offs (ever heard stories of taxi firms passing on details of who they’d just taken to the airport?). The speed, reach and scale of the internet panics us. People confuse privacy with anonymity, and perhaps put too much store in the value of some elements of personal data and too little in others.
It is of course imperative that organisations protect personal data and are transparent in their data use policies. However, the public needs to assess the risks of their own actions and interactions with and via the internet. We know how to do this in the real world – we need to learn how to do it online. People know not to write their pin numbers on their bank cards but often make just that mistake with online security. A recent analysis of hacked personal data by Dan Ariely of Wired Magazine found that over 50 per cent of people used their email address as their username on an internet service. The most common password selected was “123456” which shows not only a crazy laxity in personal security but also a huge lack of creativity.
My point is that whilst we do need to keep the pressure on organisations to protect data and use it fairly and wisely, we also need to take responsibility ourselves and to apply some of our offline experience in our online decision making.