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Fear of the Unknown Part II

Aug
2
2006

Privacy

You can’t escape exposure to the phenomenon that’s come to be known as “privacy.” I’m not talking about garden variety privacy, the kind you get when you draw the shades and talk in hushed tones, or the “privacy” that can be achieved with the aid of a pair of sunglasses and a plane ticket to Namibia.

The privacy I refer to is of the digital variety, and it is a difficult thing to attain.

The complexities of tracking and protecting electronic data – including the aggregation of information about you and me – has prompted some to proclaim that “privacy is dead,” a quaint relic of yesteryear when network referred to television and nothing else. The ease with which information can be created, located, duplicated, and communicated is now such that most of what has come to be known more formally as “Personally Identifiable Information” is readily accessible.

This isn’t something everyone worries about. After all, Americans operate in the future tense. We are always on the go and can’t be bothered by antiquated trivialities like privacy. We also love the spotlight; the more exposure the better.

But more cautious souls raise their doubts. There are those who fiercely advocate the position that privacy is a constitutionally protected, inalienable right and that it is incumbent upon everyone else to ensure the sanctity of my individual right to digital privacy. Did you hear that? I said “rights,” and I evoked the Constitution. Nothing will get an American’s fight up like the thought of an encroachment on rights! Don’t tread on me!

So here we are in the “privacy” argument. Laissez faire vs. litigation; Alfred E. Neuman vs. Ralph Nader.

And it’s all about the unknown.

Things used to be easier. In 1776 a bunch of idealistic British subjects living in North America decided to split from the crown and, in the course of human events, they took to governing themselves under a set of progressive principles that, in 1789, were codified into national law as the Constitution of the United States of America. A century or so later, a pair of bright lawyers named Earl Warren and Louis Brandeis co-wrote a paper that put forth the idea that privacy was an implied right within the constitution. About a century after that, a spate of new laws were adopted based on that principle.

For most of that time, Mr. Neuman ruled the roost. “What, me worry?” was the national motto, and we went about our business. Privacy and personal information was, for most folks, just that: Private and personal.

That takes us to February of 2005 when a company in Georgia discovered it had sold a bunch of information to some crooks from Nigeria, and since that time a steady stream of headlines have trumpeted each new incident of compromised personal data. Soon our national lament became “unsafe at any speed,” and paranoia gripped the land. Identity theft is the crime of the century.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has kept tabs of the number of compromised files since that fated February day. The count right now is nearly 90 million – a little more than one quarter of the country’s population.

That means that most adult U.S. citizens have had their privacy violated at some point in the last 18 months, right?

Well…maybe. A number corporations involved in the privacy dispute maintain – correctly – that Americans give away information about themselves on a regular basis. How many times have you been asked to give your Social Security number as proof of identification? Your zip code? How about a credit card “deposit.”

In any business transaction there must be an exchange of currency, be it money, good will, or a promise of some future exchange. The transactional process requires a measure of trust that the desired goods will be delivered as advertised, and that the required currency will be of the required value. Trust is the most important element to that process. Simply put, I’ll do business (be it retail, financial, or medical) with someone I trust and avoid those I don’t.

When there is reason to question the integrity of the other party, the transaction breaks down, and in the rush to offer safeguards (otherwise known as notice and consent) meant to preserve trust, a system has been created that assumes lack of trust and a need for protection. The seeds of doubt have been planted, watered by stories of innocents falling victim to clever scam artists via spam, phishing, and other means. This is how many people – folks who don’t really understand its workings – come to fear the Internet.

We are constantly being told we need to fear what we once took for granted, and we are buying into that fearful mindset. Our lives can easily be rendered in digital format, we are told, and that information can be easily obtained and used for nefarious purposes. Many folks, not knowing what happens behind the scenes are happy to believe the worst. But isn’t true. Sure, there are those who will be victimized by cybercrimes like fraud and identity theft, but it’s a mistake to allow ourselves to be paralyzed by the prospect.

Nearly 90 million compromised digital profiles, but, according to Javelin Strategy & Research, there are only 9.3 million actual victims of identity fraud. That’s still a lot, until you consider that only about 10 percent of that 9.3 million were victimized through information gained via the internet.

Has the situation been overblown? You bet. We should always be cautious whenever we hand over private information about ourselves, but we also need to put the risks in perspective. Moreover, we should do a better job learning something about the parties with whom we do business, and demand they treat us well in return for that business.
There are villains out there for sure, but the Internet isn’t one of them.

Share  Posted by Mike Spinney at 4:17 PM | Permalink

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