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Are You Playing Your Part in the Privacy Movement?


The privacy movement is real, active and capturing the attention of legislators, journalists and consumers. You can play a meaningful role in the preservation of your privacy rights.

Just ask Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s former privacy commissioner. According to Canada’s most outspoken advocate for consumer privacy protection,

“…if you value your freedom, you will value your privacy.”

In an interview with NPR’s All Tech Considered blog, Cavoukian discusses what’s essential to the privacy movement, and highlights the tools and attitudes necessary to be an active advocate for the privacy movement.

If you’ve found yourself wondering if your concerns about privacy were valid in our “economy of oversharing,” know that ordinary people from all walks of life still believe privacy is a social norm, and that privacy is universal. Now is a particularly exciting time, because we are witnessing the beginning of a shift in public attitudes. Awareness is spreading, and you have a role to play in the privacy movement.

What makes a social movement?

According to Wikipedia, social movements “carry out, resist, or undo social change.” Group action can take place informally or as part of an organization, and typically focuses on specific political or social issues. For a movement to gain traction, it must mobilize supporters and encourage civic engagement dedicated to change.

Much of America’s history pivots around social movements: abolitionism, civil rights, war protests, womens’ liberation, LGBT rights… all were reactions to conditions which seemed at first to be default states or insurmountable challenges.

What propels social movements?

Social movements tend to reach a tipping point in which those who are oppressed, abused, or otherwise disenfranchised are moved to bond together and react to their situation.

In the nascent privacy movement, we can see a number of factors converging: discontent with the oversharing trend on social media, a lack of transparency in privacy policies, inadequate privacy settings and a general loss of control over personal information, as well as revelations of government surveillance.

With movements, a snowball effect gathers momentum. Within the privacy movement, you might call it the “Snowden” effect. According to a recent Pew Research Study, Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance have influenced one third of consumers. The study tracked the ways in which government surveillance programs have impacted privacy strategies, and the findings are compelling:

· 34% of those who are aware of the surveillance programs (30% of all adults) have taken at least one step to hide or shield their information from the government

· 17% changed their privacy settings on social media; 15% use social media less often;

· 15% have avoided certain apps, and 13% have uninstalled apps;

· 14% say they speak more in person instead of communicating online or on the phone;

· 13% have avoided using certain terms in online communications.

Even teenagers have increased their awareness of privacy concerns online and are changing their behavior. As reported in the UK’s Daily Mail, teenagers “are un-tagging pictures, writing false posts and even adopting parallel identities in a bid to keep their personal information safe, according to the Market Research Society.”

Anger, disapproval and discontentment may also be found at the heart of social movements. Amnesty International recently examined the heat of global opinions concerning U.S. surveillance:

“The poll, which questioned 15,000 people in 13 countries across every continent, found that 71% of respondents are strongly opposed to the United States monitoring their internet use. Meanwhile, nearly two thirds said they wanted tech companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to block governments accessing their data.”

How do social movements succeed?

Action is the cornerstone of social progress. Awareness alone doesn’t consistently translate into action, however. The Pew Research Study highlighted some crucial misalignments, citing,

“Many have not considered or are not aware of some of the more commonly available tools that could make their communications and activities more private.”

· 53% have not adopted or considered using a search engine that doesn’t keep track of a user’s search history and another 13% do not know about these tools.

· 46% have not adopted or considered using email encryption programs such as Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) and another 31% do not know about such programs.

· 43% have not adopted or considered adding privacy-enhancing browser plug-ins like DoNotTrackMe(now known as Blur), Privacy Badger and another 31% do not know such plug-ins.

· 41% have not adopted or considered using proxy servers that can help them avoid surveillance and another 33% do not know about this.

· 40% have not adopted or considered using anonymity software such as Tor and another 39% do not know about what that is.

Clearly there is still work to do. Where might we better align our knowledge with our practice?

Who are allies in the privacy movement?

Alliances are key to advancing social movements, and there are companies and governmental agencies which have expressed a vested interest in protecting consumer privacy. Apple, the FTC, and other regulators regularly raise the issue.

Non-profits and privacy advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) also regularly cover privacy problems in the public and corporate space.

The privacy movement will succeed if we all play our part. As consumers, we can take an active role in increasing public awareness and changing our own behavior. Using privacy tools and services such as do-not-track search engines, email encryption and proxy servers (or TOR) for browsing can not only protect our information, but also reinforce our commitment to sound privacy practices. 

We can change the perception that using such tools is suspicious or too sophisticated for the average user. We can educate users in creative ways such as this video which animates the usability of the Tor Project.

As for companies, a competitive advantage lies in embracing Privacy by Design practices and policy transparency.

The privacy movement is here to stay. We can play our part in making it succeed.

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