Peter de Jager is a provocative Speaker,
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technology and the future.
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worldwide, he also writes monthly columns for CIO Magazine and
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The issue of privacy is at best confusing, at worst a Byzantine maze, mostly because we define it ambiguously, pepper it with exceptions, and make it impossible to apply rigorously to any given situation. This is further complicated by our deliberate assumption that all of the above isn't true. We pretend that if we just ignore that "privacy" is, no pun intended, a personal matter, then the disagreements will go away.
At the heart of the privacy issue is a fundamental conflict between the desire to have a known identity and to live in the world as if nobody has legitimate access to information about us.
The Zulu greeting, "Sawubona" means "I see you" and the response "Ngikhona" means "I am here". As always when translating from one language to another, crucial subtleties are lost. Inherent in the Zulu greeting and our grateful response, is the sense that until you saw me, I didn't exist. By recognizing me, you brought me into existence. A Zulu folk saying clarifies this, "Umuntu ngumuntu nagabantu", meaning "A person is a person because of other people".
If that is too far removed from our North American perspective, then think back to the long running TV show "Cheers." In the opening song one line predominates, "You want to be where everybody knows your name."
Those two examples should suffice to support the notion that we have a need for an identity and a longing to live in a world that recognizes us. We have all experienced the uncomfortable, even distressing, situation where we've been "strangers in a strange land", where every face was foreign, where there was no open hand.
We are pleased when we enter a store and we're greeted personally by the clerk; we're delighted when we walk into a bar and we're served our favourite meal or drink without having to ask; and charmed when we enter a book store and we're told that our favourite author has a new book on the shelves.
All of these personal interactions mark our place in the world. We use these acts of recognition as proof we're known to those around us. We are diminished when these signals of identity are absent.
Even the disadvantaged in society crave some minimal amount of recognition. Panhandlers have a common complaint. While they have no objection to those who walk by without arcing a coin, they resent those who pretend as if the outstretched hand, and the person attached to it, doesn't exist. They'd welcome a softly spoken Sawubona!
So, we like being identified, and yet... the most common framework of privacy offered by the person in the street goes something like this... "I have the right to be left alone, to keep my personal information to myself"
Fair enough, but there's a problem here. The storekeeper who knows my reading preferences, because he has sold books to me, did not ask me if he could extrapolate my past interests and suggest I'd be interested in a new book. Nor did the restaurant owner ask if what I ate yesterday is what I wanted today.
In each of these cases, people who possessed information about us, used it to extend their relationship with us... and we typically have no problem with them doing so. If anything, their actions please us, they serve as evidence that we are not just a credit card to the store, but a special customer.
Yet, if I buy books from an online store, it is somehow an invasion of privacy if that store uses their intelligence, distilled and then embodied into applications, to predict that I might like a new author. All the online bookstore is doing is extending their knowledge of my buying preferences. Privacy advocates argue that they don't have the right to do this, yet it's exactly what the local bookstore owner is doing when they recommend a new novel.
To push the envelope further, if the bookstore notes I have recently ordered a dozen books on golf, do they invade my privacy by sending me a Golf catalogue?
The correct answer (without anything better to go by) is, "it depends", not so much on the technology being used, or how it extends personal knowledge, but on the personal preferences of the consumer. Personally, I don't mind an intelligent attempt to meet my future needs, but others disagree, and disagree strongly.
While allowing each individual the right to control the use of their personal information might be a very enlightened approach, it will get very convoluted if everyone creates their own definition of appropriate usage. What we need is some sort of privacy manifesto, which even if it isn't perfect, is acceptable by all involved. The good news is we've taken the first steps in that direction.
As of January 1st 2004, organizations in Canada are subject to the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. (PIPEDA www.pipeda.org )
Distilling a 28 page document of Government legalize into a single sentence is not as difficult as you'd think. Here's the heart of PIPEDA in 28 words, Personal information, collected with a person's knowledge, and permission, for an identified purpose, cannot be used for a new purpose without regaining the customer's permission to do so.
While PIPEDA is sure to become a consultant's goldmine, it serves a useful function. It attempts to define "information privacy" in concrete terms, removing the personal "it depends" from the debate.
In the final analysis, a good corporate privacy process is designed to meet the privacy needs of the client. PIPEDA is a valiant attempt to remove ambiguity from the debate and clarify what privacy is all about, not only for organizations who manage data, but for the person in the street.
© 2005, Peter de Jager –
Peter is passionate about change, how it affects both individuals and
organizations and allows them to grow and prosper. To contact him, and
host internal seminars on Change Management visit www.technobility.com
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