OPINION26 November 2009

A question of trust

Over at the FreshMinds Research blog, Dave Bevan argues that attitudes to privacy include two questions: how you feel about consumerism and how much you trust those in power.

Over at the FreshMinds Research blog, Dave Bevan has posted this amusing video from the Onion about Google and online privacy. Bevan argues that attitudes to privacy include two questions: how you feel about consumerism and how much you trust those in power.

“It only makes sense to jealously guard your data if you believe either that it will be used to dupe you into consumption that is bad for you or others, or that it is likely to fall into the hands of nefarious governments,” he writes. Otherwise, you risk just “sticking tape over your own mouth”.

It has to be said, the privacy campaigners who have argued vehemently against online tracking activities have not done a good job of articulating the threat. It’s more that they believe that information will inevitably be abused because either they don’t like consumerism or they don’t trust those in power, or both.

There’s no question that the systems used by public and private organisations to manage our data are open to abuse. The UK’s information commissioner says 434 organisations have reported data losses in the past year – a figure it calls “unacceptable”. That includes hospitals and various government departments, as well as 200 private companies. There’s nothing to suggest that the behaviour of any of these organisations was “nefarious” – just irresponsible or incompetent to some degree – but the potential is there.

Companies engaged in ISP-level behavioural tracking say they want to provide better advertising, but sceptics might argue that’s just another way of saying they want to watch everything you do in order to sell you more stuff.

As for cloud computing, there are obvious concerns associated with putting all your personal data in the hands of a big corporation like Google, but then a lot of us are already doing this with our web-based email, photo albums and social networks (which, of course, we all access for free).

Whether these threats are real or perceived is not really the point because this is ultimately a question of trust, which, as we all know, is something that has to be earned.

The rise of social media has revealed that how we thought we felt about privacy isn’t how we really feel. It’s not just about privacy, it’s about control. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, we seem willing to share pretty much anything online – but it has to be on our own terms. So we might choose to put information online but it remains our information, and woe betide anyone who breaches our trust by trying to do anything with it that we didn’t know about or explicitly allow.

As Adam Phillips, who chairs Esomar’s professional standards committee, said at the IJMR Forum earlier this month, researchers should avoid observational techniques that are “not yet technically illegal”. Going as far as the law allows might seem OK in the short term, but as trust erodes beneath your feet you’ll soon find yourself in difficulties.

The reason that behavioural targeting companies like NebuAd (now defunct) and Phorm have had trouble is that they have not won people’s trust. Privacy is turning out to be a very touchy subject, and it’s all too easy to cause suspicion or alarm if you don’t tread very carefully. Convincing yourself that you’re doing something harmless, or even virtuous, is one thing, but winning the trust of the people whose information you want to use is quite another.

1 Comment

14 years ago

The reason BT, Phorm (and Nebuad) failed is because they broke the law. Interception of communication traffic without consent from both parties is a crime. Copying copyright material without licence is an offence. Interfering with the intergrity of communications is computer misuse (in the UK). That and conducting three covert trials. Phorm (and Nebuad) is illegal mass surveillance, mass copyright abuse, and mass industrial espionage. Then we can talk about privacy. Perhaps some people are willing to post pictures of themselves drunk, naked, and unconcious on the net. Good luck to them. That doesn't make me any more willing to share my communications data (as sender or recipient), nor does it make Phorm legal.

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