Do We Really Care About Privacy?

You may have noticed a recent flurry of activity in your email inbox as many companies sent out new privacy policies and, in some cases, asked you to opt-in to continue to receive communications from them. This coincides with the deadline to comply with the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). This regulation is meant to protect the privacy of European citizens, but many companies are attempting to avoid implementing two sets of rules in their systems by applying the regulations to all data. Less visible to the public than the email messages, is how personal information must be handled internally. For example, it’s important that data used to develop applications be masked to hide personally identifiable information. It shouldn’t be possible for anyone to piece together test or dev data to identify anyone. Even without the regulations, making sure that personally identifiable data is not seen by those who do not need to see it is a good idea.

On the other hand, I wonder how much people really care about privacy. In many places, you can order “vanity” license tags for your automobile that might include anything from your initials and year of birth to an amusing phrase once the letters and numbers are sounded out. Some people display a stick figure decal for each member of the family and pet in the back window of their mini-van or SUV. Sports and political affiliations and athletic accomplishments are often broadcast on cars. (While traveling to Cambridge to visit the Redgate office, I didn’t notice such decorations, but it’s harder to attach bumper stickers to bicycles.)

People have been airing their “dirty laundry” on television for decades in embarrassing displays. One of the worst examples is The Jerry Springer Show. Not only do guests share information that is better left unshared, they often resort to physical altercations right on stage, that, in at least one case, led to a murder after the show. For just about any aspect of life better left unseen by others, there is likely a reality show available.

Monitoring devices such as Fitbit that track our steps and heartrates make it even easier for us to share personal information with friends or strangers. Technology has allowed us to share our body mass and the macronutrient composition of our food on a daily basis. While having this information can help us live healthier lives, we don’t know how this data might eventually be sold or misused. In the future, can the fact that you did not take 10,000 steps per day keep you from receiving a needed medical treatment? Time will tell.

People make unfortunate or embarrassing tweets, comments, and posts every day. The most mundane information is announced to the world. In the worst case, a tweet or Facebook post can cost someone their career or even their family.

Regulations like the GDPR require that companies treat your data with care and keep it private, but no one can protect us from ourselves.

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