Always the virtual iconoclast, Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft, made the argument that when we talk about protecting people’s privacy, we probably don’t know what we’re talking about.
“No one can actually agree on what privacy means or what it takes to protect privacy in the first place,” Boyd said at the 2011 Personal Democracy Forum in New York City.
The problem is that most of the debate around privacy has centered on how businesses and social media use personal data to reach consumers, when much of the violations of our privacy comes from our friends and loved ones.
Consider the person who put up her family genealogy project online and unwittingly revealed the maiden name of every family member’s mother – one of the most commonly used security question on the web. Or the mommy bloggers who demand better privacy protection for their kids, but post embarrassing photos that could haunt their children the rest of their life. Or the politician that wants to legislate against targeted marketing online, but then use targeted marketing to reach voters.
What Boyd suggests is we need to pay less attention to how data is collected, and more to how it is used. In other words, you can adjust your privacy settings on Facebook all you want, but it won’t solve the underlying problem. The issue is we are deaf to social cues online.
When interacting with a person in real life we consider conversations private by default. Online that has been inversed, Boyd said, to be public by default and private by effort. Creating a culture that understands the social cues of others online, understanding what they want shared and what they don’t, will go much further in protecting personal privacy.
This has some obvious relevance for marketers. When prospects hand over their personal data, they have the reasonable expectation that you will not bombard them with messaging that fails to address their needs or interests. Obviously, understanding online behavior, reading digital body language, can help you read online social cues, tipping you off on when and where to send the right messaging.
Businesses that handle customers’ personal data need to make protecting that information a top priority. But they could also benefit from understanding the social cues those customers give online.