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What Does it Mean to Embody Privacy?


There’s no reason to believe that the growth of a global economy and the health of our society depends in part upon abandoning privacy. Quite the contrary! Let’s explore exactly what it means to meaningfully embody privacy.

Merriam-Webster defines the verb “embody” as “to represent (something) in a clear and obvious way,” “to be a symbol or example of (something),” and “to include (something) as a part or feature.” The word is particularly apt for the personal discussions and public debates we engage in when we talk about privacy.

On one hand, if we truly believe that privacy matters, how do we as individuals represent it in a clear and obvious way? On the other, why should those who traffic in our information – whether they’re corporations or government – include privacy as a feature in their technology?

The Personal Embodiment of Privacy

The global customer experience firm SDL recently completed a study titled, “Marketing Data and Consumer Privacy: What Your Customers REALLY Think.” Subsequently, the website Marketing Profs extracted some key findings from the study to create this infographic. Since we’re the “customers” reflected in this study, it’s particularly revealing to examine attitudes versus what it means to embody privacy.

According to the study:

• 74% of respondents expect consumer protection groups to monitor how brands use personal data.

• Of those consumers who have a smartphone, 76% of global respondents aren’t comfortable with retailers tracking in-store movements through smartphone and WiFi.

• Despite this concern, a whopping 72% of respondents rarely or never use “do not track” or “incognito” features.

• 65% of respondents rarely or never read a website’s privacy policy before making a purchase.

If we’re to believe this study, there’s a curious misalignment between our behaviors and our concerns about privacy. Can we embody privacy if we expect consumer protection groups to be responsible for our information? Are we representing our values if we don’t use privacy protective technologies, activate privacy settings or skip over retailers’ privacy policies?

It doesn’t seem so. But don’t worry: Awareness of this disconnect is the first positive step. Awareness leads to mindfulness and discernment. With awareness we become conscious of our when our online privacy is at stake, and this allows us to discern whether or not we’re being offered the opportunity to make a true choice about the information we share.

The embodiment of privacy begins within us and spreads outwards:

We begin by having a vision. We acknowledge that privacy is universal and that ordinary people care about privacy. Privacy is a fundamental human right.

We imagine a world where this vision can be made real by challenging norms. We recognize that privacy is not dead or meaningless. We recognize that it’s not vital that we “overshare” to be popular. We resist the message that we must trade our privacy for security.

We lead by example. This means taking responsibility for our privacy by teaching our children about privacy, having conversations about privacy with others, and looking to leaders in the privacy movement. We align our actions with the best privacy practices.

When we embody privacy, we have the power to change companies and institutions, but these organizations will only respond if we help them understand why it is in their best interest to embody privacy, too.

Why Organizations Should Embody Privacy

TechWeekEurope recently sat down with PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) and Silent Circle founder Phil Zimmermann to talk about why privacy protection is just as important for business as security. Citing the Sony hack and subsequent scandal headlines, Zimmermann talks specifically about how the technology used to protect individuals can also help protect brand integrity and public value.

Even if we have yet to fully embody privacy in our behavior, it’s clear that our concerns about privacy will have a direct impact on the future of businesses. As Daniel Burrus, founder and CEO of Burrus Research writes for WIRED in his article, “The Privacy Revolt: Growing Demand for Privacy-as-a-Service”:

“The backlash is beginning. According to Harris Interactive and TRUSTe study, 84 percent of consumers are less likely to click on an online ad and 74 percent are less likely to enable location tracking. In addition, a full 89 percent won’t do business with a company that doesn’t do a good enough job protecting them online. And 76 percent are likely to check websites and apps for a privacy certification seal.”

The customer’s offline perception may be even more sensitive. Minh Chau of the Harvard Business School writes in a summary of his research report, “In-Store Personalization: A Privacy Perspective”:

“Responsive retailers that develop the flexibility to adapt to each customer’s privacy sensitivity will be better situated to capture and deliver value to customers who want the personalized service and avoid the negative PR backlash from those who don’t.”


“…respondents’ frequency of mobile shopping, retailers’ use of trust-building mechanisms (i.e. transparent data collection policies and third party privacy safeguards), and the perceived value of the personalized services all led to increased comfort with sharing information.”

Striking the balance is key. While there is tremendous marketing and business intelligence to be realized in technology like iBeacon in-store tracking, the protection of customer information and transparency about the technology in use is essential if businesses are to embody privacy.

And this is where the broader definition of “embody” matters: “to include (something) as a part or feature.” Making privacy a feature means embracing the principles of Privacy by Design (PbD). Privacy isn’t an add-on… ideally it is baked into a company’s products and business practices.

How will you embody privacy today?

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