Privacy in a Public World

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We’ve been hearing a lot about privacy the last couple of years. And with the advent of Google Street View, GPS and location tracking, and growing social-media communities, we’re going to be hearing a lot more. What most folks don’t understand is that the concept of “privacy” is incredibly different depending on which side of the Atlantic you live. Yet in an increasingly globalized world, it’s becoming more and more important to acknowledge these divergent points of view.

Freedom of speech vs. personal privacy

Americans tend to be less concerned than Europeans. Privacy, after all, is not a clear constitutional right whereas freedom of speech is. Freedom of speech is actually the first article in the U.S. Bill of Rights. It’s not that Americans don’t value privacy, but they often view it as a tool to prevent government from overstepping its authority. This represents a fundamental difference in the way Americans and Europeans react to privacy issues.

In Europe, privacy is considered a basic human right. Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights spells it out, “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.” To put things in perspective, freedom of speech first comes in Article 10.

Who is listening?

Who is listening?

Facebook and privacy

Much of the most recent discussion was triggered by Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg who in January claimed that “privacy is no longer a social norm” – this in the wake of a key change in the default privacy setting for his social platform. (the default value for profile content is now “public” rather than “private”)

Zuckerberg may be correct that the norm has changed. But we’re talking about a self-fulfilling prophecy. If privacy is no longer de rigueur, I think it’s because we stopped caring. And we should care – very much. Just because Zuckerberg (and others) are pushing for greater openness (and less privacy), that doesn’t make openness universally correct. Unfortunately, most of the users of Facebook won’t even know this has happened and certainly won’t think about the long-term consequences. Zuckerberg wins by default (pun intended). If we don’t show that we value our privacy, we will surely lose it forever.

If privacy is no longer de rigueur, I think it’s because we stopped caring. And we should care – very much.

“But everyone’s doing it”

Some years ago, Nokia, aware that people were sending SMSs while driving (which is illegal), started to experiment with a steering-wheel input device. Nokia’s design team argued, “Well, people are going to do this anyway, so we might as well make it easier.” Eventually, Nokia had the good sense to drop the project. Just because people do something dumb, doesn’t mean it should be officially sanctioned. If this was a viable argument, a murderer could theoretically defend himself with the following: “Well, people are going to die anyway. So I just helped things along.”

Changing the norm

As user-experience designers, I think it’s our duty to protect those who don’t know they need to protect themselves. We cannot allow individual companies, such as Google and Facebook, to dictate our privacy norms. We need a higher authority.

Where is the international organization that is going to help set impartial standards? The W3C? Their privacy page (last updated in 2007) merely helps people write privacy policies for websites – the legal blather few ever read.  So where is our industry’s “International Privacy Charter”? Again, search for “privacy charter” and most of the information is 8-10 years old.

Where is our industry’s “International Privacy Charter”?

Why haven’t we written one? Maybe we should – and the sooner the better.

Image by Niklas Wolkert / cc-attribution

Eric Reiss

Eric Reiss is one of the pioneers of information architecture, having written the second book on the subject. He is a two-term President of the Information Architecture Institute, and Chair of the EuroIA Summit. Eric is Associate Professor of Usability and Design at the IE Business School in Madrid, Spain, and CEO of the FatDUX Group, a Copenhagen-based user-experience consultancy with offices and representatives throughout Europe and North America.

15 comments on this article

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  2. Hi Eric,

    Thanx for this brief “cal to arms” regarding privacy.
    Privacy is a pretty big deal in the US and while not embedded in our constitution, is interpreted as such through Roe v. Wade (the basis for legalized abortion) and a host of other things. Within Medical and Education for example there are strict guidelines around private information at the federal levels.

    That being said, privacy is really not just different btw US and Europe, but even more vastly different between the West and the East. In East Asia concepts of privacy have grown incredibly differently, demonstrating that the state and its citizens and citizens from each other can have vastly different relationships with each other in regards to privacy. There have been a host of anthropological studies looking at how lack of privacy is strong in Japan due to the architecture and how that plays out at more meta levels with governance, etc. But more importantly within contemporary contexts, it is the lack of need for privacy (more of a need for the state to respect people, not their information) that allows for the HUGE upswing of monitoring and mobile transaction technologies that have barely trickled into the western landscape.

    Among more progressive political philosophers “privacy” is further seen as a construct within the political system and is not truly a “human right”. The right that we need is for access to information to not be abused. The information itself is benign and like any tool can be used for both good and bad. It is the use that requires protection, not the tool. Further, “privacy” in this western rhetorical construct has been connected by some of these folks as being a control measure in its own right. What that means is that the system does have the information regardless of whether or not we want to know it, and thus the illusion of privacy, is used a a control to stop transparency of how the information is being used.

    Basically, while I appreciate your argument as a call to arms for privacy for the good of people everywhere, 1) I’m not so sure that everywhere is actually ethical; and 2) that privacy is really the issue.

    – dave

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  4. “As user-experience designers, I think it’s our duty to protect those who don’t know they need to protect themselves. ”

    That’s a very nice and ethical sentiment. But in some cases you (as a UX designer) are harming your client by enforcing these ethics.

    Specifically with Facebook, I think that Facebook has become the biggest social network partly by disregarding privacy concerns.
    Facebook takes advantage of the fact that in general users don’t care a lot for their privacy to make it more attractive for people to connect (by showing very inviting content), and to gather data for providing suggested friends. I believe that their ‘less ethical’ stance on privacy has helped them to dominate other, more ethically operating social networks.

    I’ve often heard users express uneasiness with the way Facebook presents suggested friends (‘how do they know that i know her? What data are they gathering?’), but in the end, they don’t care enough to demand changes or switch to the competitors.
    Then who are we to step in and tell people what’s best for them?

    “Where is the international organization that is going to help set impartial standards?”
    That is the right question. But because of the interests that UX designers have to their clients, we might not be the right party to take on this issue.

    Why aren’t the users demanding that they are protected?

  5. Thinking seperately, from the perspective of an european citizen or as an american so to say, privacy in deed may have slightly another meaning. This thought is right but it doesn’t change anything, considering, that the topic ‘privacy’ should be understood as the right of having control about the informations about an individual’s life, that are spreaded, have to be regulateable.

    People have to become aware of the priority, their ‘data’ haves.

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  8. Hi Dave,

    Good insights. And although I cannot speak intelligently to privacy from an Asian perspective, I tend to agree with you.

    In paragraph three, you write, “The right that we need is for access to information to not be abused.” This is really the crux of the issue – when viewed from a European point of view. Europeans don’t see privacy as a means to an end, but as the end itself. And far too often in European history (and beyond), the lack of privacy has led to dire consequences. This is why a flippant remark by a rich adolescent like Mark Zuckerberg worries the hell out of me.


    P.S. “adolescence” is not age determined. I know Zuckerberg is 26, but I’m not sure he’s ever truly grown up.)

  9. Hi Carmiel,

    Thanks for backing up my points. Yes, Facebook IS taking advantage of the general lack of concern about privacy.

    And you point “Facebook has become the biggest social network partly by disregarding privacy concerns.” is particularly worrisome from a European advantage. Disregarding human rights (and apathy on the part of many) is what allows dictators to rise and conquer the minds of their followers. We saw this clearly in 1922 in Italy, 1933 in Germany. Spain at least had a bloody civil war before Franco came to power. Serbian politics in the 90s are related to this, too.

    Hence, I see a danger in apathy.

    And your final question is also mine: “Why aren’t the users demanding that they are protected?”

  10. Hi Benedikt,
    My point is not so much that privacy has a different meaning, but that it is used in different ways. Europeans view it as a right; Americans view it primarily as a tool to protect themselves from government.

    Thank you for highlighting that people do not know what priority their data has. This is really what it’s all about. What I don’t understand is why so many people don’t seem to care.

  11. Bogdan Pilawski on

    Hi Eric,

    there are no easy answers to your question. Other professional groups (e.g. doctors) have their own chambers, and these set up codes of conduct for them. What’s more – they have the legal power to step in and eliminate individuals who do not obey. We (btw. – I’m more IT-related-person than UX creator, say – UX influencer, at the most) don’t have anything like that, because “Internet doesn’t belong to anybody”. I’m quite pessimistic on personal privacy issue – if you’d disregard W3C technical standard, you’ll be out of play, since no one will hear you. If you turn blind eye to W3C privacy standard (assuming there will be one) – who’d care if you still get through?

    On the other hand – privacy has become a kind of currency we’re meant to pay with for content, entertainment etc., which otherwise seems to come free. And there are plenty of those, who’d be happy to do so. See yesterdays NYT:

    I’m well over 35 years in IT. In the beginning I just believed it was something what would relieve us of burdensome tasks, and let us enjoy more and more of free time. Now I become more and more concerned to where it (IT) is going to take us. And if we ever wanted to be there. See (also few days ago):

    So, it doesn’t come for free for us, we do pay for it with our privacy-currency, and we do pay also for those, for whom it comes free after all. See (yesterday, again):

    What’s even more to that – personal privacy as currency is a kind of one way system – once you give it away, you can’t earn it back, regardless of how much and how hard you’ll try.

    with best wishes

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