Privacy Advisor

Changing Tactics: The Rise of the Privacy Advocates

September 23, 2013

By Angelique Carson, CIPP/US

In September, many news outlets reported that Facebook had announced it would delay planned changes to its privacy policies. The reports followed pressure from six major consumer privacy groups—EPIC, the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog, Patient Privacy Rights, U.S. PIRG and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse—who said the changes would make it easier for Facebook to use users’ data for advertising and other purposes. The coalition had asked the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to block the changes, alleging they would violate a 2011 settlement with the commission.

Facebook says it didn't actually pause or delay changes at all, however. While groups claimed victory, Facebook is adamant that it has neither done anything out of the ordinary or been influenced by these privacy advocacy groups. Facebook's privacy team says it is merely continuing its normal practice of listening to its users. However, the advocacy groups' victory dance and the media's attention presented the question: Are privacy advocates becoming more powerful? Are companies and government entities becoming more responsive to advocates’ cries—perhaps unwilling now to risk losing customers who are increasingly aware that their data has value but aren’t always aware of how it’s being cashed in on and who’s benefitting from it?

Observers say advocates have clearly raised their profiles, both through good timing and smarter tactics. Further, they’re making bold predictions about how privacy professionals will be working hand-in-hand with the advocates in the near future.

Justin Brookman of the Center for Democracy and Technology certainly thinks privacy advocates are gaining traction. Five years ago, for example, the public really wasn’t engaged in the conversation about privacy at all.

“The issues weren’t intuitive to them, and the message wasn’t getting out,” Brookman said.

Of course, recent revelations of the U.S. National Security Agency’s (NSA) use of data may have helped to bolster privacy advocates’ message, Brookman allowed.

Chris Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union thinks it may not be so much that privacy advocates are gaining in influence or power but people are simply hyper-focused on privacy as of late because of the NSA revelations and media stories about data brokers, for example.

“I think there’s just generally a high level of concern and there has been for a while, and I suspect there will be for a while,” Calabrese said. “We do this stuff every day and so we’re kind of very deep into the nuance of it, but, when you go to folks who aren’t in the space every day and who don’t deal with privacy routinely, they have a lot of unarticulated worry about what’s happening with their information. For the first time ever, there’s a lot of information about the average individual person that can be found by Googling someone or going through a data broker, and this is the first generation that’s really grappling with that.”

Chris Hoofnagle of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology said privacy advocates are generally experiencing a more powerful influence. He points to the fact that many professionals who spent time in advocacy roles are now in decision-maker positions at regulatory bodies.

“Just look at the constellation of former academics and advocates at the Department of Commerce and the FTC,” he said.

He added that the shift could be generational.

“We keep on finding that the most privacy-concerned age group is the 30- to 49-year-olds,” he said. “This very group is now at the point in their careers where they are rising to leadership positions.”

The fact that the citizenry is beginning to understand privacy concerns on a personal level is exactly the momentum privacy advocates need to succeed. At least that’s the argument being made by Colin Bennett of the University of Victoria. His book, The Privacy Advocates, looks at the privacy advocacy movement and studies how effective advocates have been. Bennett says for advocates to be successful, they have to be transmitting a message that resonates with the broader public. In this case, there has to be a mass, general sentiment in favor of privacy.

“A lot of privacy advocacy is not only about privacy,” Bennett told The Privacy Advisor. “It’s about honesty, and it’s about trust. And when a reputation has been damaged because a company has been seen to not have been entirely open about its policy, then that privacy message can resonate more effectively. I think you’re seeing that with Facebook and with other companies as well.”

Simon Davies, founder of UK advocacy group Privacy International and author of the Privacy Surgeon blog, says privacy advocates are becoming not only more targeted in their aspirations but also far more selective about what they want and ruthless about the way they get it.

“They are far more strategic,” Davies said.

They’re employing tactics used by effective campaign groups in the 1960s and 70s during the environmental and civil rights movements.

“They work on a formula that relies on integrity and evidence-based approaches to their campaigns,” he said. “I’ve lost count now on the number of organizations who’ve refused to move on a campaign unless they have an evidential foundation. They realize the reputational damage that can be done by talking nonsense. And they tend to be working a lot more politically.”

One politically savvy move is to cooperate with allies, an increasing trend among privacy advocates—last year, three advocacy groups issued a joint filing against a Twitter subpoena; a coalition of 14 advocacy groups filed a formal complaint aiming to stop firms from soliciting children’s e-mail addresses for marketing purposes, and during the summer, a coalition of 100 privacy groups joined forces to call on Congress to end blanket-style data surveillance programs, for example.   

Coalitions allow for a strategically greater division of labor, Bennett said. If one group is taking a company or the government to task, another can take on a separate issue. It’s not an organized process but occurs naturally—and not just in the privacy sphere.

“They try not to tread on each others’ toes as much as they can,” Bennett said. “If the ACLU is going after a piece of litigation, they say, ‘Okay, we don’t have to do that,’” he said.

Semantics have played a large role, also, Bennett and Davies agree.

“What the privacy sector learned in the last five years is that they are not using the word privacy,” Davies said. “That doesn’t do anything for the public. What they’ve managed to do is take the trigger words in privacy and exploit them. So, for example, secrecy, hypocrisy, deception and unfairness. They take those four strands and they play those like violin strings, and they are words the public really does relate to. They might not understand what privacy is—because who does—but they really do understand those individual pulses within privacy.”

Bennett said advocates have been wise to get beyond “broad and knee-jerk metaphors” about surveillance or Big Brother.

“We’ve seen all of that, and it’s becoming a bit of a cliché … it doesn’t seem to have an impact on the general public,” he said. “Where it’s reasoned and based on fact and makes a forceful cause that the Fair Information Practice Principles are not being adhered to, it can be very effective indeed and can resonate with the broader public perception that people are losing control over their personal data.”

Looking to the future, Davies predicts what may sound like an unusual partnership. Within the next two years, he said, he sees consumer cries for solution-based approaches to privacy resulting in the coupling of companies and advocates in the name of resolution.

“This whole field has been divided by conflict, but I think we’ve seen the worst of that,” Davies said, adding that everyone has a common interest in finding solutions.

Privacy professionals must start “widening their interaction to include civil society,” he said, “because civil society is going to start pushing very hard on the absence of real solutions.”

Read More by Angelique Carson:
How Should Your Firm Respond to the NSA Fallout?
Survey: Users More Afraid of Peers than Gov’t When It Comes to Data Access
Consumers: Forget Screen Size, Cameras; Sell Us Privacy
PCLOB Finds a Director, Looks Toward Action