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An Alternative to “Privacy Panic”

We have all, at one point or another in our lives, experienced panic. Panic is defined as “sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety, often causing wildly unthinking behavior,” and there are times when we may feel a panic response is justified, however unpleasant or unproductive it may be. Panic is an extreme response to the awareness of a threat, perceived or real, and while “wildly unthinking behavior” seldom contributes to a positive outcome, the awareness of potential harm is almost always useful information.

Security breaches and privacy concerns can cause some of us to panic. When we think our most private information has been compromised, it naturally triggers fear, and may even provoke us to irrational responses. In some cases, those fears are justified, while in others, they may harm us. They can impair our ability to discern real threats and prevent us from sticking to our privacy practice.

So let’s talk a little about the “privacy panic” debate from both sides of the fence. Is panic hampering innovation, or does privacy awareness provide a much-needed brake on the frantic expansion of technology? Where might we find a middle path? If we as users slow down when we interact with technology, can we find a more mindful approach?

Does Privacy Promotion Distort Policy?

Privacy advocates have recently come under fire for provoking what some tech industry professionals call “privacy panic.” As Alan McQuinn writes in his TechCrunch article, “From Kodak To Google, How Privacy Panics Distort Policy,” privacy advocates may unfairly saddle tech innovation with doomsday claims about how the technology creates profound privacy risks, thereby slowing the adoption of beneficial technology. In McQuinn’s opinion, in time, the public comes to understand the benefits of the technology are real while the privacy threats are far less than advertised by privacy advocates. McQuinn cites research by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation which describes this recurring phenomenon as the “Privacy Panic Cycle.” The great harm, as McQuinn sees it, is that “overwrought privacy fears can lead to ill-conceived policy responses that either purposely hinder or fail to adequately promote useful technologies.” He argues that this collective slows economic and social progress.

As a privacy advocate myself, I disagree with McQuinn’s view that those concerned with privacy only serve to spread panic. Certainly there’s a benefit to considering the ramifications of innovations in technology. Though we both recognize there are always tradeoffs in technology, the idea that we should view all innovation through a default lens of net benefit seems unreasonable. Tech innovation is frequently marketed as something which exists to “optimize societal benefits” (to borrow McQuinn’s phrase), when in fact we have often observed privacy abuses leveraged to optimize tech company growth.

Privacy professionals are not luddites, and shouldn’t be blamed for inviting panic. Promoting user awareness of privacy issues is not aimed at restricting social or economic progress. With billions of venture capital on the line and “growth hacking” on the lips of every startup, privacy advocates encourage the practice of discernment—the fair evaluation of the benefits, risks, and compromises. This understanding helps shape reasonable public policy for a civil society and balances human values against market forces.

Privacy Panic on Facebook

Despite the best efforts of innovators in tech and privacy professionals to teach rational analysis and judgment, we still see periodic epidemics of privacy panic. Social media makes it exceptionally easy for the viral transmission of hoaxes, as the recent privacy panic on Facebook reminded us. As reported in Time’s article, “Making This Your Facebook Status Won’t Change Your Privacy Rules” thousands of Facebook users have posted a short bit of nonsense legalese in the mistaken belief that it will enhance privacy protections over the content they share on Facebook. The hoax periodically resurfaces on Facebook, but this recent outbreak was so widespread that even John Oliver responded to it with a comedic segment on his show Last Week Tonight.

While it’s embarrassing to fall for these hoaxes, there are also real risks when we abandon our senses. As Quentin Fottrell writes in his article “Beware of viral Facebook posts that vow to protect your privacy,” some shared links on Facebook can, in fact, lead to malware or socially engineer users into sharing credit card information (something Facebook never asks for). Perhaps most disheartening about the Facebook privacy panic was the fact that it revealed both a genuine anxiety users have about their sharing their information online – alongside complete ignorance or misunderstanding about Facebook’s published privacy policies and settings. There’s still a lot of work left to do when it comes to aligning personal privacy values and behavior.

A More Productive Approach

Technology does not have to be the enemy of our right to privacy, and there are more productive responses than privacy panic. Awareness and mindfulness are at the core of a solid privacy practice. Here’s a more productive approach:

1. Consider what privacy means to you. Examine your own values, because privacy is personal.

2. Be choosy in your privacy choices. Learn to identify when you are being given a legitimate choice or a “take it or leave it” proposition.

3. Learn to SEE clearly. Slow down online. Stop, Evaluate, and then Enter your personal information.

Don’t submit to the “wildly unthinking behavior” panic brings. Be present with your privacy practice and you will be able to optimize technology’s role in your life.

“By living deeply in the present moment we can understand the past better and we can prepare for a better future.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
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