Opinion

Privacy Is Not Dead ... It’s Aliiiiive!

By Ruby A. Zefo, CIPP/US, CIPM

Like many of you, I have been told repeatedly that “privacy is dead.” Most recently, I was walking down the hall in my office building, carrying my Ultrabook with the Future of Privacy Forum’s “I (heart) privacy” sticker on it, and minding my own business. A marketing colleague stopped me and abruptly advised me that “the thing you love is dead.” 

Good heavens. For a minute I panicked. What thing? Cuban sandwiches? My cat? Cowboy boots? What? He pointed to my sticker and said, “Privacy is dead!” 

Oh, that. No sir, it is not dead.

I am a big fan of zombie movies, and I can tell you that privacy is not dead. At worst, it is the living dead. The undead. Perhaps like Frankenstein’s monster, you thought it was dead, but in fact, it’s aliiiiive!

Does privacy take the same form it did many years ago, or even in the recent past? No. Our lifestyles, our expectations, our global economy, and, perhaps most importantly, new-fangled technology and our love of it, have changed everything. Certain aspects can never be brought back to life. For example, with just a little bit of information, many people in westernized countries can be located in several minutes of basic searching on the Internet, sometimes for free but often for a small fee. This could be viewed as taking a bite out of privacy, but it certainly did not kill privacy. My desire to walk down the red carpet on George Clooney’s arm surrounded by blinding flashes from the paparazzi remains unfulfilled, and my privacy remains, for the most part, intact.

Privacy may transform into something new; it may even retain or return to some vestiges of the past, but it will remain very much alive. I have many valid reasons for my faith in the longevity of privacy.

Here is a list of my top 10 reasons privacy is not dead:

  1. While technology has gifted us with an amazing amount of information access and connectivity to the world, in many ways, it has also isolated us. Remember when your mom told you to go outside and “get the stink blown off you”—that’s the way my mom phrased it—and not to come back till dinnertime? We ran all over the neighborhood in wolf packs from house to house. In some ways we have more privacy now than we did back then, when everyone was always up in each other’s business in an old-school way. Now, I never lay eyes on my neighbors. Kids are hiding behind their phones. I go to the supermarket and I don’t recognize a single soul. Admittedly it is easier to share—or have shared—our public embarrassments to a wider group of people and that can be unfortunate. But most of those people probably don’t care anyway. (See numbers three and four below)   
  2. Our massive overload of information makes it difficult to parse through information to identify people, even when they really want us to. Many people cannot lose their privacy no matter how hard they try. I’m not even talking about would-be reality TV stars, karaoke enthusiasts or Girls Gone Wild. What about those anonymous folks valiantly struggling to publish valid e-books, make important political statements or find funding for their research? We are being slowly anesthetized by information overload and it takes something really bizarre to grab our attention. Or cute, like kittens on YouTube. But most of us aren’t that bizarre or cute. I’m sorry.
  3. People are lazy. While they could invade our privacy more than they do, that would take some real effort, and we are busy watching football —however you want to define it in your country—and eating pork rinds.
  4. People are often not that interested in anyone but themselves. You know who you are.
  5. Having the ability to identify someone does not equate to actually identifying someone. In other words, collecting data without using it can be harmless—even if it does defy some citizens’ views on privacy—assuming that the data isn’t lost or stolen. And using it in an anonymized way can be a helpful, for example, use of Big Data analytics to discover how diseases spread.
  6. Just because retailers like Zappos rightfully love and follow me around on the Internet does not mean that they are doing anything nefarious other than placing ads to sell me more shoes. Which clearly I need, along with another closet. Or more feet.
  7. Politicians and regulators suddenly care about privacy, and money and elections are at stake. For example, Al Franken, our U.S. comedian-turned-senator who used to be even more hilarious, cares deeply about our privacy rights and is clinging to it like a Chihuahua with a bone. “I’m good enough; I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like privacy!”
  8. Most of us have not had any significant negative impact involving identify theft—with apologies to those who have. I did find some pornographic phone line charges on my credit card bill once —who uses the phone anymore? —but the credit card company promptly took care of it.
  9. We do it to ourselves! Many people’s lack of privacy is of their own doing, not external forces. Stop giving away your name, address and IQ for a $2 coupon to your local Waffle House. Stop sharing your drunken confessions on Facebook—tell them to me instead. Don’t be so naïve as to believe that it is impossible to record a photo from Snapchat: I could just take a photo of it with a camera. And for heaven’s sake, stop running out naked when you see the Google Street View camera car drive by (oh, as if you haven’t thought about it—we might recognize you even behind that Mardi Gras mask).
  10. For those of you who love the movie Zombieland as much as I do, privacy has not been “double-tapped.” It is simply undergoing a transformation. It is different than it was. But we can make it better than it was before. Better, stronger, faster . . . .

And that reference to the Six Million Dollar Man brings me back full circle to my childhood, when my friends and neighbors knew all about me. I miss those days.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Privacy. I love you, man! 

* The views expressed herein are my own and derive from an overabundance of unrequited humor and nostalgia.

photo credit: Jkö Sánchez via photopin cc

More from Ruby A. Zefo

About the Author

Ruby Zefo, CIPP/US, CIPM, is Intel’s Chief Privacy & Security Counsel. Zefo manages Intel’s global privacy and security legal practice, where she is responsible for the development and implementation of legal strategies that advance Intel’s worldwide opportunities related to privacy, data security and cyber security, while appropriately managing associated legal risks. In addition, Zefo manages the teams responsible for all legal support of Intel’s IT department, and Intel’s global trademark practice. She joined Intel in 2003. She has a B.S. in Business Administration from the University of California at Berkeley, and a J.D. from Stanford Law School.

See all posts by Ruby A. Zefo

Comments

  • February 14, 2014
    Tim
    replied:

    Privacy as you describe it kind of sounds like playing in the sandbox of this destructive culture. What you refer to doesn’t at all support the people or groups who long to shake up the super industrial system that is keeping a massive number of human beings trapped in poverty, and also rapidly killing off most life forms on this planet.

  • February 14, 2014
    Landis Esposito, Chief Privacy Officer WRHA
    replied:

    Love your sense of humour - great article.  Thank-you, I need to share this with folks in our organization that are always saying the same thing to me (Privacy is dead).

  • February 14, 2014
    GJC
    replied:

    Great article - keep them coming!  Great approach, smart, well thought out, and delivered with the honesty and nostalgia that I easily connect with (being a Privacy Officer helps I guess).  It made me want to check Intel’s careers to see if I could work with you (on the east coast).  Thanks, and I wish you well!

    • February 14, 2014
      Ruby
      replied:

      Thanks so much! Keep your eye on the IAPP job board, you never know!

  • February 17, 2014
    Ulla
    replied:

    What a great article!!  I love your approach.  Although I would argue that it’s not really undead, it’s more like the survivors in Walking Dead.  And I totally expect it to triumph in the end.

  • February 17, 2014
    LaVonne
    replied:

    Great piece! As a (former) lawyer, love to see this combination of astute observation and sense of humor. I wouldn’t change a single word but have to note that there is one area of nosiness that is harmful—credit scores. My work in the area of commercial credit has taken me pretty deep into Intel but no overlap in our networks as far as I can see. Still, will start following your posts. I hope there will be more!

  • February 18, 2014
    Brenda Fantroy-Johnson
    replied:

    Thanks for the shot in the arm.  Great Story!

  • February 18, 2014
    Elena Elkina
    replied:

    Thank you for writing it.  We need more reminders like this.  And it is always nice to have a good laugh.  You have a great sense of humor.

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