Given the ongoing implosion of Facebook, concerns about privacy are, once again, in the headlines. Yet the fundamentals are fairly simple. Are we heading towards a world where transparency is the default, or is our right to privacy still important enough to us to fight for it?

Privacy versus Transparency

We have tended in recent years to think of privacy as the opposite of transparency in the realm of social media. Companies such as Facebook have espoused an ideology in favor of transparency. Whilst stating that privacy is a human right, they have mined our data in order to sell it to third parties and better “target” us with advertising. This is built on a basic business model of social media being free in return for access to this behavioral data.

The Damage of Targeting

That word – “target” – I am not sure if it is supposed to sit easily with us and feel normal. It feels predatory, as it is usually associated with hunting, shooting, with war.

Targeted marketing turns you and into a target, a mark. Privacy can make targeting harder, even impossible. So corporations based on advertising revenue don’t like it one bit.

So, one of the reasons corporations dislike privacy is that it thwarts the ability to target us. We can be targeted as sources of data that can then be used to re-target us (or others) with products, services and advertising. We can also be targeted to try to influence the way we think, feel and act. Privacy scuppers that.

The Benefits of Transparency

There are benefits to transparency. Better targeting us can improve our digital experience and help us to find what we are looking for. Better targeting can lead to more specific and helpful medicines and therapies. Better targeting can reduce fraud, improve data accuracy and data security. Ideologically, surely open is better than closed, surely transparency stops us all hiding away? Surely privacy needs to be stopped?

Yet, set against that are the problems of this often forced transparency. We can feel invaded, manipulated, disrespected and even attacked. We can feel controlled by corporations and snooped on by “Big Brother.” We can end up badly targeted, frustrated and even scared.

The Benefits of Privacy

There are benefits to privacy that could and should make us rethink the assumption that all transparency is good.

Here are five of them…

5 New Ways to Think About Privacy

1. Privacy can create safe space for creative thinking. When we know we are not being overheard, we feel more safe to explore all aspects of our thoughts, feelings and actions. This can help us to solve problems or explore issues and questions on our own terms. Sometimes opening up is a better way to address problems and questions, but not always. The ability to go “private” can be essential to problem solving and innovation.

2. It is possible, though rare, for a group or even a community to be private. This is recognized on Facebook with “closed” groups, yet even that isn’t wholly private as the platform owner – Facebook – can still mine that group’s data. This can defeat the purpose of the group being private and lead to over-cautious and even fake posting. Truly private groups and communities need full privacy (within the law, of course).  There are difficulties here because some groups may break laws and should not have their private activity hidden from view. However, we need to find better digital solutions for that and not default everyone to varying levels of transparency. Without that ability to be private, groups online will never feel truly safe to dialogue and share openly with each other. This leads to cliques, grapevines and, worst of all, lack of innovation as people default to playing it safe.

3. Privacy is a place of mystery. In privacy, we can learn a vital life skill – the ability to positively be alone. Not everyone has this skill, and it means we are often looking for self-definition from others, often receiving distorted self-images as a result. All kinds of problems can arise when we can’t find certainty or enjoyment in exploring our own mystery. Every human being is unique, an unfolding story. When we opt for total transparency, the world “out there” is bigger and more influential than we are. We tend towards copying and end up as a cliche, spouting the language of the media, feeling the thoughts put before us, and confusing what we get fed back with who we really are. Privacy throws us against ourselves – that can be confusing and frightening at first, but it is a chance to find out who we really are. Digital transparency can take away an important daily meeting – me meeting me.

4. Privacy is a place to decide what to forget, what to delete. The human right to delete is lost if all data is kept and analyzed, even anonymously. The ability to decide “I want to obliterate that picture” gives confidence to edit and to ensure that what we publish to the world is what we choose to publish. Artists draft and redraft to refine and improve. The right to rip up, to burn has always been essential in creative artists and thinkers. Yet in the digital realm we make it hard, even possible to delete. Some mobile apps, such as LinkedIn’s, don’t let you delete messages, and nearly all social media platforms still mine data, even after you have deleted it. Even “purging” doesn’t immediately and irrevocably delete data for the owners of social media platforms. Knowing it is never truly gone can dilute our creative passion, making us careful and reluctant to draft. What is the point of drafting if we can never truly burn or rip up our earlier efforts? It is as if all our rough drafts are sent to a central art gallery to be looked at by corporations. Who really wants that?

5. Privacy can be fun. We haven’t really begun to explore what a truly sacred personal digital space might look like. My own personal blog read only by me – my diary, my jottings, my drawings, my designs. Certainly some are using encrypted platforms and the dark web to try to achieve this but, in the mainstream, our private spaces, even when set to private, are still mined for data anonymously and we know this. This is changing with some new social media platforms such as Ello.co claiming “you are not a product,” yet even here the ethos is one of sharing and transparency, even if your data is safer from the snooping eyes of corporations.

Zoning out?

Currently many people, when they opt for privacy, simply switch off. They opt for a physical notebook or the privacy of their own thoughts.

But what would a digital realm look like that truly allowed us to opt for complete privacy as described above, when we need to choose to? Does the net become less neutral if it enshrined a genuine and total right to privacy as a foundation stone?

An Opportunity for Social Media Providers?

I believe there is a genuine opportunity here for corporations to finally “get” what privacy is all about and to respond. If social media platforms enabled and even encouraged users to choose times and content to keep utterly private – and if that content really was genuinely inaccessible to corporations – people would trust social media more. If we were skilled in choosing when and what to share, we might actually share more. We might trust and use privacy settings more intelligently and usefully. Privacy ought to be an open, collaborative conversation between users and suppliers, not an irritated, mistrusting and evasive battle.

If we were allowed and enabled to withhold, if corporations knew when and how to respectfully avert their gaze and “turn away,” there might be more selective and conscious sharing of data. This happens in medicine when people willingly join medical trials and find cures all the more quickly and effectively.

What if chosen, personal and complete privacy fostered innovation and creativity useful to individuals, groups and societies? I believe privacy exists in the human condition of a good reason. It helps us heal, resolve, dream, create and vision. When it is interfered with, diluted and even designed out, we all lose out. Transparency, for its own sake, can become a kind of mania and it can harm and ultimately eliminate the best we can be.

Image courtesy of Spencer E Holtaway on Flickr.

About The Author

Profile photo of Paul Levy
Director

Paul Levy is the founder of CATS3000, a change and innovation company that helps people and organisations to realise potential and thrive. He’s worked with individuals and organisations all over the world for the last twenty years to challenge mediocrity, and to open space for change and transformation. Paul is also a senior researcher at the Centre for Research in Innovation Management at Brighton Business School in the UK. He’s the author of several books, including “Technosophy” and Digital Inferno (based on his acclaimed blog, The Digital Inferno. He is also lead facilitator with the Social Media Leadership Forum. Recently he also started working with the Bitcoin and Blockchain Leadership Forum. He’s also a director of Rational Madness Theatre – an award winning organisational theatre company that uses theatre to inspire and provoke change, transformation and innovation. He’s a facilitator, trainer, writer, thinker and collusion breaker. Paul Lives in Brighton in the UK.