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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

On Trumping Privacy Choices

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How do we make respect for internet users hip again?

Irina Raicu

Last week, the International Association of Privacy Professionals (of which I am a member) published a blog post by Shay Stewart-Bouley, titled “Making Privacy Hip Again.” I very much appreciate the writer’s description of her efforts to redraw her own privacy boundaries so that they’ll better fit her view of the good life. However, the blog post suggests an assertion that I would dispute: that privacy is the opposite of self-disclosure. Stewart-Bouley writes that

social media and the power of online searching mean that we don’t have as many secrets. And, in so many cases, this culture of social transparency means that we also don’t try as hard to keep any secrets. We’re sharing photos of ourselves and our children with a slew of people we’ve never met and never will. … We aren’t trying to be private.

But privacy is not really about secrecy, or hiding, or less sharing; it is about having some control over when, where, what, and with whom we share. It is about choice. If you knowingly choose to share information about yourself, you are not violating your own privacy. The violation happens if and when details about you, or your communications, are disclosed without your permission. (In that sense, Stewart-Bouley’s conflation of social media and online search into a “culture of social transparency” is problematic: on social media, you do have at least control over what you post, and some control over who will see your posts; you can also choose not to be on social media at all, or to create a minimal presence. However, you have no such control over what turns up via online searches about you—which is why so many Americans wish for a counterpart to the European “right to be delisted.”)

Notions of privacy have always varied from culture to culture, from age group to age group, and from individual to individual. If some people make the informed choice to post and share things about themselves that you wouldn’t, that doesn’t mean that some vague general “privacy” has become irrelevant or is dead. It means that those people draw their privacy boundaries differently than you do, not that they don’t have any.

They key there, though, is “informed” choice. If people disclose information and are then shocked to realize that they’d shared it more broadly than they’d intended—which happens all the time on social media, for example—then the problem is bad design (sometimes intentionally misleading design), not lack of desire to protect one’s privacy.

A recent example of this came in the form of an app called “Trump Yourself.” “What has Donald Trump said about people like yourself?” asks the app’s splash page, inviting you to sign in to it with your Facebook account (which is, of course, chock full of information, about you as well as all the people connected to you). Go ahead and take a look at the “Trump Yourself” home page: see if you can spot the microscopic line that reads “By using Trump Yourself, you agree to be opted in to Hillary for America’s emails.” (The app was released on July 21st; it links to a “Privacy Policy” for the organization Hilary for America overall, which policy, as of this writing, states that it was last updated on February 11, and notes—as many such disclosures do—“We may change this Privacy Policy from time to time.  If we make changes, we will notify you by revising the date at the top of the policy and, in some cases, we may provide you with additional notice…” Dear user: even if you read privacy policies, your informed consent might become uninformed if you don’t reread them on a daily basis.)

“Trump Yourself” might be described as an effort to make voting or other election participation “hip again.” As CNN Money pointed out, though,

by logging on with Facebook, you're actually handing over valuable biographical data and contact information about yourself. gets your public profile data, which includes your name, gender, age, and location. It also has the email address you used to sign up for Facebook.

… Immediately after using Trump Yourself, you will receive an e-mail from the Clinton campaign welcoming you and thanking you for registering an account at There is no unsubscribe option, and a link to make changes to your brand new account does not let you delete it.

So, some people who thought they were playing a goofy online game (maybe echoing the popular “Elf Yourself”) have found, too late, that they have been entered into a database for a group they might have had no desire to join, and have also handed over personal information and opened themselves up to potentially unwanted communications—with no way to reverse that.

The main privacy problem online is not that of disclosing too much, as long as that’s what we want to do; the problem is the fact that it’s too easy for our choices to be undermined and ignored.

How do we demand more control? How do we make respect for internet users hip again?


Photo by Jan Zuppinger, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

Jul 28, 2016

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