Privacy Locks

December 31, 2009

According to the man at the Customer Service Desk in Wickes, the reason they do not stock locks for bedroom doors is that EU privacy law prohibits them from doing so. I may have slightly overstated my level of expertise when contradicting that view (he must have wondered what a member of the Supreme Court was doing in the Chippenham branch of Wickes), but I am pretty confident that I knew more than him. A privacy law that forbids me from locking my bedroom door would be a strange creature indeed, although it may one day be the product of some sort of media exception that requires me to allow the Sun and Channel 4 access on the off-chance that they want to write a story or make a (very, very short) documentary about my sex life. Rupert Murdoch is probably negotiating just such a clause with David Cameron even now as a diversion from tidying up Internet libel and removing funding from the BBC.

The use of privacy law to excuse the absence of a product is merely a variation on the call centre excuse that most of us are familiar with – ‘I cannot tell you what you want to know about our total incompetence because of data protection’. But it’s an interesting new development that indicates a level of awareness that surprised me. The fact that ‘privacy law’ was, in the mind of an obviously intelligent man at Wickes at least, consistent with the denial of privacy raises all sorts of issues but at least it is awareness of a kind. Perhaps we experts (as defined to include all SCL members) underestimate that awareness.

My claim to privacy law expertise was more justified yesterday than it might normally be. I had just edited Ian Brown’s interesting article on data protection, {Data Protection – The New Technical and Political Environment:}, and was flicking through a review copy of a new paperback from OUP, {i}Privacy: A Very Short Introduction{/i} by Professor Raymond Wacks (which publishes in late January). Ian Brown worries, very convincingly, that meaningful privacy may simply disappear into a technological void. While Raymond Wacks acknowledges that sort of fear and both authors see technological solutions to the loss of online privacy, what struck me most forcibly in the early pages of {i}Privacy{/i} was a quote from Hannah Arendt: ‘In ancient feeling, the private trait of privacy, indicated in the word itself, was all-important; it meant literally a state of being deprived of something, and even of the highest and most human of man’s capacities’. The value put upon privacy is not an historical and cultural constant. When I observe an indifference to privacy among some, principally those much younger than me, I may not be observing indifference or stupidity – I may be observing a change in attitude to privacy that is based on a balance of risks and benefits. I touched on this in my {predictions for 2010:} and I think that, if we ignore the difference in attitudes, we risk wasting an awful lot of effort. We all become very impatient with politicians who claim that the public has not grasped their message, when in truth the message has been firmly grasped, by the neck, and rejected. Privacy campaigners may be in danger of falling into the same trap by assuming that the message about the importance of protecting privacy has not been understood when many seem to understand, and yet make choices which are not privacy friendly.
What we might need to see is a greater subtlety in the privacy message. The technological answers to the protection of online privacy will require informed responses. While it is possible to take the line that all responses should exclude sharing of information, the reality is that such an approach is likely to be dismissed out of hand by many, who will begin to equate private with deprivation and shun all privacy-friendly options. The subtle technological protection must go hand-in-hand with a subtler call for privacy awareness. That’s the challenge for privacy advocates in the new decade.

Locks where and when you need them, and openness and sharing where you don’t.