How to challenge four common myths about privacy

There are a growing number of roundtables and conferences about insurance and big data at the moment. And at some point during almost every one of those events, one of four myths about privacy will be voiced. And I call them myths because essentially, they’re misleading statements often underpinned by some questionable motives. Here’s why.

Myth 1: Privacy is Dead

If the digital era we are entering results in our medical records being openly available to all, your firm’s complete financial records being likewise free to access, or a lock on our front door becoming unlawful, then I might agree with this assertion. Clearly our use of digital technologies is widening the scope of what we share and this is resulting in discussions about changes in the nature of privacy. Yet if we remember that privacy is actually about the rules governing the use of our personal data, then privacy is very much alive. The word count of recent media articles about privacy controversies show that it is in fact one of the most important and most vibrant issues of the day.

Myth 2: No one cares about privacy any more

And if that statement is voiced on behalf of any one group, it is young people. Yet if you look at the more substantive research, it’s clear that young people are just as concerned about privacy as anyone else. In fact, they are more likely to engage in privacy-protecting behaviours, such as the use of false identities. Young people are less concerned about peer to peer privacy, and more concerned about privacy vis-à-vis authority figures such as parents, teachers and in due course, potential employees.

What the evidence does point to is that we all care about privacy, but we are bewildered by the difficulty of managing our privacy in practice, faced with a multitude of legalistic privacy policies, hidden opt-outs and ever-changing settings.

Myth 3: If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear

No one has ever been prepared to have all information ever collected about them put into the public domain. And I don’t think the digital era will change that, for everyone has something they would prefer to keep to themselves. And the right for them to keep things to themselves is being upheld in recent legal developments around issues such as the right to be forgotten, revenge porn and the misuse of cookie data. A society in which everyone had to put all their secrets on public display (which is what this assertion amounts to) would be one that is less innovative, less diverse, and altogether less free. We all open and close different aspects of our personalities to different people at different times: it’s what makes each and every one of us who we are. And it’s something that businesses do all the time, under the guise of public relations.

Myth 4: Privacy is bad for business

There’s a view that business is complicated enough without adding in tricky things like privacy. It’s portrayed as another hurdle placed in the way of getting on with doing business. And when business is busy doing all sorts of innovative things, this view shows privacy as a kind of tax on progress.

Privacy may indeed represent a cost that firms have to incur as part of doing business, but then properly handled, it also represents a sound investment in gaining the trust of consumers. And just as the digital era is putting aspects of privacy into debate, it is also putting aspects of ‘how trust is earned’ into debate too. Firms have to do more to earn consumer trust nowadays, but when they have, those consumers then tend to be more loyal. And profitable. Some firms are seeing good privacy as good for business.

So when you hear one of these four myths being propagated, stop for a minute and think beyond the headline phrase. Weigh up the evidence and the interests of the person making the assertion. And remember that the phrase ‘everyone else is doing it’ has been described as the five most dangerous words in business.

For a much fuller exploration of these four privacy myths, read this paper by Neil Richards of Washington University in St Louis. It helped frame this blog post and his papers are always worth a read.

About the Author Duncan Minty

Duncan is the founder of the Ethics and Insurance blog and the author of its many posts. He's a Chartered Insurance Practitioner, having worked 18 years in the UK market. As an adviser to many firms on ethics issues, as well as a regular conference speaker, he is one of the leading voices on ethics and insurance.

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