Freaking out about privacy? You're not the only one

On May 18th and 19th the fifth annual mesh web conference came to the MaRS Centre.  Some of the big themes explored: how new platforms are shaping content, how real time is impacting business opportunities and how businesses should be leveraging social media. But the most common (popular? contentious?) that kept popping up in many of these discussions – what role does privacy play in this rapidly evolving landscape?

The issue is firmly planted in many people’s minds these days with the recent changes on Facebook that have posed some interesting legal and regulatory questions.
These questions will only get bigger and more challenging. With advances in both real-time and mobile, companies can now capture data at a much more granular level. These advances can prove incredibly useful to the everyday consumer, as pointed out during the panel on Mobile as a Way to Drive Business and Sales  – consumers can now follow brands to get instant updates about when they are in close proximity of a sale. The benefits can be much broader and part of the larger social good too. Dr. Ann Cavoukian, the Ontario Privacy Commission and leading privacy expert, spoke on the panel about Privacy in the Age of Facebook and brought up an interesting case. As Smart Grid technologies advance, utilities and consumers will soon be able to monitor their energy consumption down to the appliance level. These advances are valuable to managing energy usage, however they also pose interesting questions around who gets access to this detailed data about when you are home or not, when you are taking a shower or when you are cooking dinner.

So why does any of this matter? Our values and norms around privacy have certainly evolved over time. Mark Zuckerberg argues for a concept called “radical transparency” which states that if everyone were open and transparent with their information the world would be a better place. I am reminded of similar “if I don’t have anything to hide, I shouldn’t be worried” language during the implementation of the controversial Patriot Act in the United States, which overrides a number of privacy protections.

The idea behind privacy is about more than just transparency though. Privacy is about each individual having the right to decide who gets access to his or her private information. As much of this detailed data capture becomes ingrained in our everyday usage of social networks, GPS applications in our phones and other useful products and services, do we slowly begin to lose control over consciously making that decision for ourselves?

By the end of day one of mesh, I was feeling pretty scared. One of the Keynotes, Joseph Menn, bestselling author and reporter for the Financial Times, shared his findings about how the Russian and Chinese governments are protecting and directing some of the worst cyber-criminals. Many of these criminals are incredibly organized and years ahead of us in terms of technology. As they continue to advance in their ambitions and abilities and consumers continue to provide more private information online, the security threat becomes increasingly worrisome.

In addition to security threats, many privacy concerns can often be less obvious to consumers. An episode of TVO’s The Agenda was taped at mesh focusing on the issues of privacy, in which Dr. Cavoukian brought up how many young people today may not realize the long-term implications of revealing details of their personal lives on social networks. From having indiscretions discovered by potential future employers to giving criminals all the information they need to rob you (a group was so concerned about this issue they created a website called PleaseRobMe.com that aggregated people’s social networking announcements of when they would be away from home, coupled to their addresses to prove this point), people need to be more educated about being careful with their private information. Much of the information we put online never goes away and can be quite easily pieced together to form a detailed “fingerprint” of exactly who we are and what we’re doing at any given time. This is beginning to sound a lot like an Orwellian dystopia.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Sharing information online continues to bring about significant benefits to consumers, businesses and the economy as a whole. The Ministry of Education has been working with Dr. Cavoukian to incorporate privacy education into the Ontario curriculum and much awareness has been raised recently on the issue. Dr. Cavoukian explained during a panel session that while work still needs to be done in setting up the appropriate regulations, it will ultimately be up to the consumer to understand the risks and demand the privacy protections they desire by supporting the companies who protect their best interests. She has developed the concept Privacy by Design that states that privacy needs to be built into the default mode of companies’ operations (read more here).  MaRS has also been incorporating these principles into the way we advise companies.

With all these increasing concerns around privacy and security in the digital age, it presents significant opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Seema Lakhani

Seema works on the MaRS Advisory Services team. She’s also done some management consulting, working with entrepreneurial ventures. See more…