Things I’m Reading –  By Simon Davies There’s no elegant way to express the following idea, but here …

 By Simon Davies
There’s no elegant way to express the following idea, but here …

By Simon Davies

 public opinion graphBy Simon Davies

There’s no elegant way to express the following idea, but here goes anyway.

To put it bluntly, I’ve stopped worrying about whether the public cares about privacy – and I believe privacy advocates should stop worrying about it too.

Unless human rights activists and their philanthropic backers abandon their focus on public opinion, the prospects for reform of mass surveillance will disintegrate.

I’ll go even further. Unless human rights activists and their philanthropic backers abandon their focus on public opinion, the prospects for reform of mass surveillance will disintegrate.

I’m aware that these thoughts might sound wildly contradictory – if not insane. Over the past three years I’ve tested them out on audiences across the world and experienced waves of disbelief. That’s one reason why I’m certain those ideas are on the right track.

In summary, my belief is that too many of us are obsessing about whether X percent of people change their default privacy settings, or whether Y+4 percent “care very much” about privacy – or indeed whether those figures went up or down in the last few months or were influenced by loaded questions, etc etc.

As advocates, we should never buy into that formula; it’s a trap. And for funding organisations to think that way is a betrayal of fundamental rights. A program director for a medium sized philanthropic foundation told me earlier this month that her board had “given up” on privacy because “we can’t measure any change in people’s habits”. I don’t see that equation being used as a measure of the importance of other rights.

In the failed rationale of opinion and user behaviour statistics, the relative importance of privacy depends on the level of active popular interest in the topic. According to some commentators, privacy is a non-issue if only a minority of people actually adopt privacy protection in their social networking or mobile use.

Imagine if that logic extended to other fundamental rights. It would mean that the right to a fair trial would be destabilized every time there was a shift in public sentiment. And it would mean that Unfair Contract protections in consumer law would never have been adopted – replaced instead with a “Buyer Beware” ideology.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying public opinion isn’t relevant. Nor am I saying that public support isn’t a laudable goal. We should always strive to positively influence thoughts and beliefs. It’s certainly true that for some specific campaigns, changing the hearts and minds of the majority is critically important.

However, on the broader level, there’s a risk that we will end up cementing both our belief system and our program objectives to the latest bar talk or some dubiously constructed stats about online user behaviour. Or, at least, the funding organisations will do so.

It seems to me we’ve been collectively sucked into the mindset that privacy protection somehow depends on scale of adoption. That populist formula is killing any hope that this fragile right will survive the overwhelming public lust for greater safety and more useful data.

I’ve noticed an enduring (and possibly growing) argument that public support for privacy is largely theoretical because relatively few people put their beliefs into practice. Conversations on that topic tend to dwell depressingly on public hypocrisy, with detractors pointing out that the general population fails to use the privacy tools that are on offer. Even worse, whole populations avidly feed off the very data streams that they claim to be wary of. Apparently this alleged public disinterest and hypocrisy invalidates arguments for stronger privacy.

(As a side point, I don’t believe that the situation is so black and white. People have become far more privacy aware in recent years, and their expectations of good practice by organisations have increased. People change their behaviour slowly over time, and yet there has been real progress in recent years.)

That having been said, this is probably the right moment to raise the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. The public at large has consistently displayed this condition. Indeed, cognitive dissonance may as well be embedded in our DNA.

In this popular syndrome, people subscribe to beliefs that they then contradict by their actions. For example, ninety percent of the population may strongly believe in democratic process, while only sixty percent bother to cast a vote. 96 percent may believe strongly in free speech, while only 47 percent actually support it as a universal right, regardless of gender, politics, race or religion.

Still, just because people in their masses gobble down full fat burgers while expressing a commitment to the goal of responsible eating, that irony shouldn’t poison the push for healthy living. Indeed, it makes that message all the more crucial.

But even if we went along with the view that only a small minority of people put their privacy beliefs into day-to-day practice, so what? Why is this situation relevant to the fight for universal privacy rights?

The struggle for human rights – or indeed the struggle for progress generally – rarely depended on the involvement of the majority (or even the support of the majority). Freedom from torture, universal suffrage, the fight against human trafficking and the right to a fair trial were rarely reflected in mass-attendance rallies.

Achieving such reform can take a century or more of dogged persistence and – even then – changes to public behaviour happen incrementally. The goal of universal suffrage in the UK, for example, required 77 years of structured and uncompromising campaigning to accomplish. In contrast, the international privacy movement began less than thirty years ago.

The fight to end child labour in horrid sweatshops was definitely aided by consumer boycotts (they hit companies like Nike quite hard), but reform was generated more by a small number of committed advocates building on strong principles, clever strategy and the rule of law. Political integrity and astute name-and-shame tactics were far more potent elements than was the number of people who voted with their wallet.

So, if the argument for reform of sweatshops was not poisoned by reminders that the majority of people continue to buy t-shirts produced in sweatshops, how come privacy advocates so often allow the privacy dialogue to be destabilised by that very equation?

Privacy activists and their supporters invest much of their time figuring how to make the public care about privacy. Vast resources are devoted to finding ways to reach the “man on the street”. All of us seek the elusive strategies that will bring privacy into the hearts and minds of the masses.

But – just to be hypothetical – what if there were no magic bullets? In terms of public support for privacy, what if the present situation is as good as it gets? The reality is that the privacy community’s concern about the minutia of how many people read privacy polices – or who activate their privacy settings – has become a distraction from the more important and challenging objective of creating a sea change in data practices.

August 17, 2015 at 12:36AM
via The Privacy Surgeon