The privacy paradox

The Japanese have no word for privacy. Here in the UK, society’s expectations of privacy have evolved over time. Most homes didn’t have internal walls until 1500, nor solo-occupancy beds until 1700.

This idea of the ‘right to privacy’ was only seized upon in 1890 when the camera prompted fears of your image being stolen. Even then privacy was a reserve of the wealthy – the poor couldn’t afford it.

Privacy and our expectations of it are a construct of cultural and societal norms. Privacy helps us manage the pressure of society. It is less of a fixed entity and more of a “shorthand for breathing room to engage in the process of…self-development” said Julie E Cohen, professor of Law and Technology, Georgetown University, hence its fluidity in the face of changing ‘threats’ to our privacy.

>See also: Privacy in the digital age: honouring the customer

People’s ideas about privacy reflect the changing times and are counterbalanced by our desire for convenience. Technology has greatly complicated the boundaries and expectations of privacy, but researchers delving into the topic have found that, as has happened many times in our history, people are usually happy to compromise privacy for convenience and benefits.

Those who express concerns about online privacy don’t take proactive measures with social media; the rewards offered by social media outweigh the fears, and the third person bias makes risks easier to shrug off – ‘it won’t happen to me’.

Recent Nominet research has showed that almost half of all adults think the government watch everything they do online. Interestingly, males are slightly more paranoid than women; 41% over 38%. Even 37% of children think the government is watching their every online move, from sharing pictures of their lunch to researching their history homework. Do people truly believe the government has the time, resources or inclination to follow our day-to-day activities online? Does it matter if they are?

>See also: The right to privacy: a digital disconnect 

Such inflated fears may be a reaction to the recent Investigatory Powers Bill that forces ISPs to retain customer data for longer. Security investigators are empowered to pursue a person’s data and hack into devices in case of a suspected security risk.

Understandably, many were outraged by this perceived infringement on privacy, although too few stopped to consider that, if people demand complete privacy online, this is also available for the criminals. Are individuals not willing to relinquish a little privacy for increased security? These measures are designed to help law enforcement keep our society safe – the task we empower them to do.

In some ways, this very human reaction to the issue of privacy will be pivotal in facilitating technological development and infiltration. Only by relinquishing some of our expectations of privacy will society be able to unlock the benefits of the digital revolution. A wearable health tech devices might help diagnose our illnesses faster than a doctor and save our life. The caveat is, we have to allow personal data to be collected, analysed and shared.

>See also: Why 2017 will be the year of privacy

When the benefits begin to outweigh hesitancy, society will embrace the advancements in technology, just as society has always moved past initial, defensive fears over new tech. When trains were first introduced, people believed their bodies would expire in gruesome ways by travelling at such high speed (30 mph) and telephones invoked concerns over electric shocks.

Fears proved unfounded, and society has adjusted expectations and reaped the rewards. The same will be true of the internet in time. However, much technology governs people’s lives, we are still human, and will continue to repeat circular behaviours of rejection and acceptance as society moves into a new digital age.


Sourced by Russell Haworth, CEO, Nominet

Avatar photo

Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...

Related Topics

Social Media