On the Privacy of Privacy Policies

“Justice Louis Brandeis may have famously defined privacy as ‘the right to be let alone,’ but – as the [FTC] staff report acknowledges – ‘the application of this concept in modern times is by no means straightforward.'”
– From Facebook’s 2/18/11 letter to the Federal Trade Commission (scribd.com link) re: “Preliminary FTC Staff Report, ‘Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change: A Proposed Framework for Businesses and Policymakers'”

“Never write anything on paper you can’t have the whole world read.”
– My mother

How private can privacy policies be?Handshake 2.0 and She Chooses, online ventures of which I am a part, both have published privacy policies.  With the creation of She Chooses – the social network application for women with an algorithm-based sharing tool – our team has been very thoughtful about privacy, an issue of great concern to women. Using Brandeis’s definition of privacy as “the right to be let alone,” one way to state a facet of privacy we’ve considered is “the right for a user to choose whom she lets in and whom she does not.”

What women really want is the right to choose, even determine, their own, individual privacy policies. They want complete and perfect privacy online – they want to choose what information they share and with whom they share it, and then to control with whom what that information is subsequently shared, i.e. who is “let in.” From our research as we’ve developed She Chooses, that’s what we’ve found is the primary concern of women about using Facebook:  Facebook chooses.

But women’s – or anyone’s – wish for control of information is impossible to fulfill, both online and off. The strictest privacy policy, the most rigid privacy settings, the most solemn oath of confidentiality cannot counter three factors: 1) People are human and therefore err, so people will say they will keep information confidential but sometimes they don’t, 2) having a policy to control people’s behavior doesn’t control them because people just won’t be controlled (try to control the behavior of anyone with whom one has any kind of relationship at all and see how successful that is), 3) technology makes no information private or secret. If I can see it, I can share it. If, on my computer or mobile screen, you reveal to me your deepest secret? I can take a screenshot, save it as file, attach that file to an email, and spam the world with who you are or what you’ve done.

What’s the takeaway about the privacy of privacy policies?  Ultimately, there is no privacy guarantee.  People can’t be made to “let us alone” or comply with our dictates on who’s “let in” and who isn’t.  The bottom line is that it’s risky business going it solo as a human – wolves, E. coli, stuff like that – and it’s really risk business being social as a human.

When I find myself getting sanctimonious about privacy policies, I remember that I came into the world socially, privacy violated and violating – I was born of another’s body, stark naked, through her very privates.  With that visual in mind, I find my outrage and idealism about the sanctity of privacy pretty infantile.  I get realistic about privacy and people:  All the people, all the time, cannot be made to do the right thing.  Most of the people, most of the time, however, will. With people, that’s the deal.

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