Hackernoon logoIdea 1: What Online Privacy & Your Bowel Movements Have In Common by@VickyFarrand

Idea 1: What Online Privacy & Your Bowel Movements Have In Common

The common thread debunks the three general assumptions of “well, I have nothing to hide”, “maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” and “if you need online privacy you must be a criminal” It shows that the secrets we all have deserve the same level of basic privacy as closing the door when you’re in a public bathroom. It could be as ordinary and mundane as someone walking in on you in the bathroom, an adult buying Viagra or condoms, or a teenager looking for information on how to use tampons.
Victoria Farrand Hacker Noon profile picture

@VickyFarrandVictoria Farrand

Founder ,developer

And it’s not “I don’t give a shit”, although that’s probably a fair assessment of how most people feel about the collection and use of their data online.

The common thread debunks the three general assumptions of “well, I have nothing to hide”, “maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” and “if you need online privacy you must be a criminal”. It shows that the secrets we all have deserve the same level of basic privacy as closing the door when you’re in a public bathroom, and how critical anonymity and privacy can be for young people.

Polymath Magazine articles tackles one topic a month from five different perspectives.

January: Online Privacy 
Perspective: Social Responsibility

As Glen Greenwald says in his TED talk Why Privacy Matters, shame and humiliation are what occur when someone observes you doing something you’re embarrassed about — something that, when you started, you believed you were doing in private. It could be as ordinary and mundane as someone walking in on you in the bathroom, researching STD’s online, an adult buying Viagra or condoms, or a teenager looking for information on how to use tampons.

In the real world, privacy is accepted and respected in all of these cases. But for some reason, as soon as someone expresses the need for privacy online the assumption is that they must be doing something nefarious, like building a pipe bomb or plotting to assassinate a president.

Now you’re probably thinking “well, if I‘m researching STD’s online then who’s going to know?”. Great question, I’m glad you asked.

Real world scenario

Imagine this: You’ve started noticing erectile dysfunction (a perfectly normal, and certainly not criminal, thing) so you call the clinic and make an appointment to see a doctor. While you’re on the phone your room mate picks up the line, realizes you’re talking to the clinic and decides to listen in. They now know your private (but not that unusual) secret, and because they can’t resist a good gossip now all of your other room mates know, too.

Who’s at fault? Your room mate for learning your medical problem and then willingly sharing that information with others without your consent? You’re damn right they are!

Online world scenario

Imagine this: Same thing happens, except this time the chain of custody of the information is different. You notice erectile dysfunction > Google possible causes and remedies> call doctor. In this instance your problem has gone from being protected by doctor patent confidentiality to being part of a huge swath of data about you that is used to retarget and remarket adverts in Gmail, YouTube, and in searches. While you’re out at the clinic your room mate (too lazy to go get their own computer) uses your computer and sees ads for Viagra and 5 Best Male Enhancements. Same result occurs: room mate knows your secret >can’t resist a good gossip > all of your room mates know.

Who’s at fault? Your room mate for using your computer without permission? Yes a little bit. Or Google for disclosing your personal, medical data to someone who you did not give permission for them to know? I’d be more concerned about the second one.

Google says on its privacy page:

“We do not share this information with advertisers in a way that personally identifies you”

At Google’s end, yes the data is anonymous and it remains anonymous when advertisers access it. However, your data stops being anonymous when personally identifying information can be attributed to it, such as your room mate seeing Viagra ads on your computer.

The data was anonymous when the ad was served, however you’re still ashamed and humiliated.

As humans we have the habit of looking at problems only from our perspective based on our age, financial situation, access to technology etc. But what does this lack of online privacy mean for young people who are trying to navigate the world?

Maintaining the internet as a source of information, advice and guidance for young people

Now you’re a grown adult who hopefully has the social skills and emotional strength to weather a storm like the one above. Now, imagine that you’re a young person living in a home with one shared computer. Or you’re a young person whose family does not have a computer and so they are forced to use public computers at school or a computer at a friend’s house. By not protecting the young person’s right to privacy Google has the potential to cause major shame and humiliation by inadvertently serving ads –containing personally identifying information– back to the young person’s family members, friends, or teachers. People from whom they wanted to keep this information private.

In a statement for the Wall Street Journal in an article called Protecting Offline Privacy in 2009 Jennifer Barrett, global privacy and public policy executive at Acxiom, said:

“Unless companies are using the data collected for some other purpose than to deliver an ad, there is very little harm that comes to the consumer,”

I disagree. I worked on a project many years ago that dealt with how to digitally connect young people with information on sensitive topics that they didn’t feel comfortable sharing with peers, parents, councillors, or school teachers.

For example to talk about tattoos they might go to an older cousin who they trust, to talk about school and careers they might go to their parents, but for topics such as teenage pregnancy, drugs, domestic abuse, and mental health the tendency is to seek out sources of information that will allow them to stay anonymous, in turn reducing the potential for shame or humiliation…this source is more often than not, Google.

In 2012 a resolution of the UN Human Rights Council(L13) presented a “mirroring principle” between you and your virtual avatar:

“1. Affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”

conversely Eric Schmdit of Google famously said:

“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Which is how we arrive full-circle at what online privacy has in common with your bowel movements.

Taking a shit is not a crime, however to fit it into Eric Schmidt’s world view it is not something you want everyone to see you doing, so apparently you shouldn’t be doing in the first place. Yet offline no-one calls you a terrorist because you don’t want to shit with the door open. You just want some privacy.

According to the UN Human Rights Council, if a mirroring principle applies you have the right to shit (research STD’s, buy viagra, and learn how to use tampons) with the door closed online.

Google’s stance on using your data & closing thoughts

“You might also see ads based on the kinds of websites you have visited. For example, if you visit sites and blogs about running, biking, and football, as you browse the web you might see ads related to sports on publishers’ sites — whether they are sports sites or not”

Remove “running”, “biking”, and “football”, and insert “erectile dysfunction”, “chlamydia”, and “abortions” and all of a sudden you’ve got what could possibly be your deepest darkest secrets being served back as display ads and content to anyone who uses your computer.

As online ad targeting becomes more prolific, allowing advertisers access to the search data of young people could result in a reluctance for some of the most isolated youth to use the internet for information, advice and guidance.

Should all data for everyone under a certain age be exempt from collection? and what might a system like that look like?

Please leave comments below and share with your friends, I’d really love to hear your thoughts.

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