Privacy Protection? Forget it!

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“The only thing these companies care about is money and profits.” Yet another round of whining about TikTok, Facebook, Google etc. and privacy. More regulations, more stupidity. Did we get it all wrong? Maybe personal (data) protection is a personal thing?

It’s being repeated by pundits and politicians again and again and it’s stupid – an overtly misleading assessment. Let me cut straight to the bone. The stupidity is this: The digital economy is driven by data. Your data, my data and lots of other data. It’s a sharing deal – you give (data), you get (services). Which also means that the choice is simple. No giving, no getting. If you’re fine without all these services, stop sharing. Otherwise continue – with caution.

Of course privacy should be a concern. Of course some companies are abusing the trust we put in them. Of course we need standards and some regulations. But the problem is on a different level: How to create a reasonable balance between ‘give’ and ‘take’ without destroying the business model. Unless the conclusion is that the idea of exchanging data for services is basically bad and should be stopped. Which is unlikely given the size of the business and the benefits.

Assuming the latter, what we need is a reasonable, acceptable balance between ‘give’ and ‘take’ for all sides and we need to establish some boundaries: What is acceptable (use of data) and what is not. Which has been attempted a number of times from all kinds of experts, politicians and bureaucrats for the past 10 years – with meager results. For obvious reasons. The experts may understand the technology and/or the business, but they have utterly failed to convey sufficient knowledge to the politicians and bureaucrats. They seem as clueless as ever as to how the digital world in general and the service vs. data relation works. Which means that most regulations and law proposals cure symptoms at best, make the situation worse at worst, or just don’t work and create even more bullshit jobs. 

Unsurprisingly, the users – you and me and everyone else – remain just as clueless. We accept and applaud the idea that our data should be protected and that they have (big) value, but continue to splash even the most private details in social media and other digital channels.

Again, even the basic premise, that our data are inherently valuable, is wrong. As pointed out by Tim O’Reilly (‘Data is the New Sand’) a while back, most of our data are completely void of any value until someone takes on the rather intricate challenge of making sense of them. Which requires big resources, somewhat akin to the oil production installations in the North Sea or Gulf of Mexico.

It’s frustrating. What many of these clueless privacy pundits are trying to do is akin to blocking off the oil wells while expecting production to continue. Needless to say, it will never work. In order to improve a situation that admittedly is somewhat out of control, we need a different angle, one that starts with understanding – and with the acceptance that stupidity cannot be regulated. It may sound odd, but stupidity is a human right. 

The digital privacy problem cannot be solved unless the public, you and I, want it to. Which brings me back to where I started: The balance between give and take must be understood – in very simple terms. Like – your employer will not pay you unless you deliver the expected work. Google and Facebook will not work unless you give them some of your data. How much is your decision to make – the more you give, the more you get. Or at least, that’s the way it should be – and that’s the way many algorithms work in social media. You cannot criticize the social media companies and many others collecting personal data for monetizing them – that’s the business model we participate in and it isn’t or shouldn’t be a problem. 

What IS a problem, is abuse – and this is where most of the ongoing regulation proposals fail. Instead of attacking abuse and work towards guidelines for trust, they assume that sharing is the problem and try to protect everything and anything originating from users/people/citizens. It cannot possibly work.

Ironically it looks a lot like the fight against climate change. The problem isn’t really fossil fuels or our extraction of rare metals and materials from the earth, it’s the abuse, the scale, the lack of respect for the source. Most of which has happened over the last 100 years.

I’m digressing – back to our data. Of course there are risks. There will always be risks. When the pundits are carpet-bombing us with their ‘all your personal data must be protected’ slogans, it’s easy to forget that privacy is a fairly recent invention. Something that became possible when cities grew bigger and services/amenities made us less dependent on each other. On the countryside, in villages and even parts of larger cities, there was no privacy a hundred – maybe even fifty – years ago. Everybody knew just about everything about everybody else. To the extent they were interested. It was a balance, and most of the time a positive one, a safety net. Even as technology descended on the countryside, the manually operated phone exchanges became much of a blessing because the operators knew ‘everything’. They would call people living alone every once in a while to check if the were OK – and flag if there was no answer. The local police chief would know exactly who needed help in the case of a general emergency, etc. While today, people are dying at hospitals because their doctors cannot (or do not dare to take on incomprehensible regulations and potential litigation) share important medical information. Regulatory stupidity turned killer (see Your Medical Data May Kill You).

I’m digressing again, and I’m not trying to glamorize the past. On the contrary: We have all these opportunities, freedoms, conveniences, services, resources – most of them unheard of or completely unrealistic 50 years ago. Do we want to use them or let someone else make the decisions for us? Privacy is not an either-or, as the privacy pundits like to portray, it’s a bunch of choices – and a lot of common sense. Which we still possess, don’t we?

Bottom line – yes, we do need effective regulations, that’s how functioning societies are built and refined, improved. But don’t expect perfection or anything like ‘full coverage’. Don’t even expect regulations to have your interests at heart. If you have secrets, protecting them is your responsibility, not someone else’s. If you want privacy, open up with caution. There will always be risks – as was the case 100 and 1,000 years ago.

Aim for balance: Being too protective may kill you (as in medical data), being careless (or ignorant) may destroy your life. If you don’t trust social media to protect your data (and you shouldn’t) don’t give them away. And finally – if your favorite social channel is becoming unbearably noisy or just impenetrable because of ‘smoky’ algorithms and meaningless ads, quit. Be strong. Set the scene and feel good about it. We’re not zombies, are we? Remember, zombies don’t survive …


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