There's No Such Thing as Privacy

What is Privacy?

This image of a button makes it look so easy,  doesn't it?

Well, first off, privacy doesn't exist. Privacy is a subjective feeling in that there's no specific measurement anyone can use to suggest absolute privacy; what is private to one party may be inherently public to another.  

All the word means that it's a state or condition that we believe is free from observation or eavesdropping. In terms of technology strategy, privacy reflects the confidence we have in systems to protect confidential information about individuals.

Let's break a few of those components down for a minute.

  • Confidence. Yet another subjective feeling, confidence reflects how assured we feel that our safeguards are thorough, comprehensive, and resilient to attack. Example: we have confidence in a deadbolt on our front door to protect us from an intruder; we have confidence that a locked file cabinet will prevent unauthorized inspection of classified data. Confidence reflects only our intellectual and emotional trust in our safeguards.
  • Systems. These are the policies, processes, training, controls, and automation that we've put in place to guarantee outcomes, to provide us with greater assurance that privacy can be maintained. Systems help ensure confidence.
  • Individuals. In technology, we collect information all the time. That information is usually aggregated and reflects many anonymous data points that help paint a picture over a problem. This kind of data and its collection yields competitive advantage: we want this data, need it, collect it, and utilize it, to maximize profitability for shareholders. That's different than the information of individuals which is specific and representative of personal details that uniquely identifiable. It's about understanding what uniquely identifiable information we maintain and what we're responsible for.


So, in terms of information sciences, we look at privacy as an artificial and subjective construct. It's not an absolute thing - flip a switch, a button to press, and, hey: your stuff is private! Rather it's a feeling that we have that the systems we've put in place give us the confidence that information about individuals remains confidential.

The degree to which that feeling can extend is relative.

  • If you want a feeling of maximum assurance and the highest confidence, we must come to thoroughly understand the information of individuals we maintain, and, to implement very rigorous systems to control it.
  • If you want reasonable assurance and reasonable levels of confidence, we implement the bare minimum of systems to protect and control the information in our care. 
  • If you're unsure of what information you're responsible for, and, aren't aware of the systems put in place to protect it, then your confidence is misplaced - you're blindly believing everything is okay. You've taken no action to understand what you're responsible for, then you can't have any reasonable expectation of privacy.


Further, privacy isn't a defined thing in the United States. It isn't even a right. There isn't a consensus in this country of what degree of systems are sufficient, what specific information about individuals should be confidential*; there's nothing written into the Constitution or Bill of Rights that guarantees citizens a right to privacy (in fact, just the opposite, with the 1st Amendment); aside from a smattering of Federal and State laws, case law has attempted to define what privacy actually means. In this country, there is a limited legal framework that defines what is private and what your obligations are (as a business owner) to maintain it.

So privacy isn't a right; what information about individuals should be private hasn't been universally defined; safeguards to elevate confidence haven't been universally defined; privacy is just a subjective feeling. 

Beyond that, there is not an absolute economic imperative behind privacy.  It won't improve shareholder equity; it won't return on investment. You're simply investing in safeguards. And for individuals, implementing inconvenient systems to safeguard their privacy may be perceived as too tedious or time consuming. Why should any business or individual what to do something that costs money, delays action, or causes irritation, when the payoff seems so limited?

So surely, privacy doesn't exist. It's a feeling that resides only in our minds.

Yet, ephemeral as privacy may be, the recent data breach from the Federal OMB affecting 7-percent of all Americans should remind everyone that the threats are real and the impacts are material. Indeed, a return on privacy does exist in the form of damages, losses, trust, and reputations. 

The question is: in witnessing this massive failure of privacy within the Federal Government, will you - today - overcome your base assumptions about your company's safeguards, verify their integrity, and implement stronger safeguards, as to validate the confidence that you have in systems that keep the personal private information of individuals confidential? Will you change your habits as an individual? Or, will you keep doing what you've always been doing, presuming your systems and habits should never have to change?


* With exception to some classified forms of information determined by Federal and State Governments. Example: Data subject to the Federal Privacy Act, FERPA, HIPAA, GLB, Matter Subject to State Data Breach Laws, etc. These pieces of information have been defined as classified and there are system requirements to raise our confidence levels.