OPINION: The privacy bargain

Stephen Bell asks if we are trading in our right to privacy in order to take advantage of social media and cloud applications

Privacy as a basic “right to be let alone” has been the subject of rarefied legal debate and less complex arguments from laypeople who insist, at the extremes, that they are entitled to own all their personal information, or that they “have nothing to hide” and wouldn’t care who knew the most intimate details of their lives.

With the spread of social media and cloud applications, this debate has a new fervour. Google repurposing personal data for its Buzz venture and sniffing wi-fi, limits on Facebook users’ control of privacy settings – every incident of this kind brings enough howls of protest to persuade us that people still value their privacy.

On the other hand, it is often said the new generation think differently and are keener on sharing information than keeping it private.

Some people have simply given up the struggle to stop their information getting everywhere.

Privacy is dead, we are told. I might feel inclined to believe it, were it not for the impression that the loudest voices in support are the very marketers and pollsters who stand to gain from that attitude. I suspect a little social engineering.

Another view, which I find more persuasive, is that when we make use of a service like Facebook, we enter a commercial bargain. Something very useful is provided to us free of charge and in exchange we cede something of our private selves to the providers, to be sold for whatever they can earn.

I put this to Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff. She suggests the bargain accepters are not as numerous as I believe, and in the wake of the Facebook and Google embarrassments, privacy champions are becoming a majority.

However, what if she is wrong? If most of us see the services offered, say by a cloud computing operation based overseas, as of so much benefit to our business that we are willing to relax our information controls; and when we put a clause in our contracts asking customers to sign away some of their privacy with a tick in the box, we find they too are willing to allow us to give it away, because they value the service we provide.

There is a risk that the Privacy Commissioner and her staff might then be seen as the villains, keeping us from using new technology to smooth our businesses and lives because of their legalistic obsession with an abstract value.

The privacy-huggers might or might not outnumber the “honest bargain” brigade – I don’t have the statistics.

Yet, it is hardly a unique dilemma. Humans often strike bargains that appear wrong to others, such as participating in embarrassing reality television shows. Many would argue for their right to make such an individual trade, but others would suggest a universal moral value or standard of behaviour is imperilled and we owe it to humankind not to let the side down.

That takes us back to the first question; is privacy a standard of that calibre? Do we risk it being eroded by growing individual consent to invasion? And should we have laws to discourage that process?

Or should everyone be “let alone” to make up their own mind?

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Tags marie shroffprivacy commissioner

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