Overcoming the Privacy Management Buzzkill: Make Privacy Fun?

Over the past two years, protecting our personal privacy has come to feel like a daily struggle and an oppressive burden. With the holiday shopping season in full swing, get ready for more stories about major data security breaches at retailers, our devices being detected through every shopping aisle and checkout line, and the usual array of Grinch-like hackers and spammers looking to steal our most intimate photos.

Bah! Humbug!

So it should come as no surprise that average Americans feel completely insecure when it comes to protecting their privacy. A recent Pew survey revealed 91% of Americans now believe they have lost control over how companies gather and use their personal information.

This anxiety should provide an opportunity for companies to win with consumers simply by providing them with more control. Fully 61% of those surveyed by Pew expressed a strong desire “to do more” to protect their privacy online.

Still, “user empowerment” and “privacy management” have been at the hearts of efforts to improve privacy for years, and the 2012 White House Consumer Bill of Rights repeatedly stresses the importance of providing individual controls for the collection and use of data. Many companies already offer consumers an array of meaningful controls, but one would be hard-pressed to convince the average consumer of that. Further, the proliferation of digital opt-out mechanisms has done little to actually provide consumers with any feeling of control.

The problem is few of these tools actually help individuals engage with their information in a practical, transparent way. Instead, privacy becomes an overwhelming chore, and something that takes too much time and energy for the average person to process.

What we need are tools that make privacy fun.

Nico Sell, CEO of Wickr, an app that provides encrypted self-destructing messages, argues that privacy has developed something of a dour image problem. Instead, she suggests online privacy tools need to be marketed more like snowboarding – as something cool. While it is easy to dismiss her suggestion as the sales-pitch of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, privacy could benefit from being less like paperwork, particularly if the goal is to alleviate consumer insecurities.

Conversations abound about how privacy should be “baked into” consumer products and services, or how to offer features to control personal data. Most public privacy debates focus on what sort of check-boxes should be clicked by default. While understandable, these debates sidestep simple usability issues. We need to do a better job of embracing creative, outside-the-box ways to get consumers thinking about how their data can used, secured, and kept private online. Advances in web design and, more recently, app development have made everything from tracking personal finances to reading the text-heavy Harvard Law Review more enjoyable. There’s no reason design and functionality can’t also be used to make privacy more engaging.

Even small tweaks go far. Facebook, for example, recently featured a blue privacy dinosaur to help its users with a “privacy check-up.” More than 86% of Facebook users seeing the tool actually completed the entire privacy check-up, and Facebook suggested that the dinosaur “helped make the experience a little more approachable and a little more engaging.” Presenting users with a privacy check-up is easier than asking them to wade through a myriad of privacy settings of their own volition. Putting these simple tools right in front of user eyeballs not only makes privacy more approachable, but more salient.

How privacy tools are marketed and presented to consumers is important. Firefox announced it would enable a “Forget” button right on the browser’s dash, allowing users to wipe clean portions of the Internet browsing history with two clicks. Hardly a new feature, but it’s not something anyone thinks to do regularly. Placing privacy tools front and center can change that equation, and the “Forget” button is a much more user-friendly concept than a privacy tutorial that asks someone to plow through menus and preference panels.

Different companies have different business models and incentives to stress privacy, but everyone should agree that longstanding, widespread public anxiety – even apathy – about privacy is something that needs to be addressed. At some point, someone will find a way to marry privacy and simplicity in a cool, fun, and more importantly, widely embraced experience. A host of start-ups are working to answer that challenge, and the rise of ephemeral messaging apps like Snapchat are, if not perfect implementations, a sure sign that consumers will flock to tools that will give them privacy piece of mind.

Big tech players may be in the best position to help privacy go mainstream, which is why it’s a positive step when a company like Apple can make privacy features a centerpiece in its rollout of iOS8. Apple has always excelled at getting people engaged with its products, and at the very least, privacy needs a marketing makeover.

After all, when it comes to privacy, getting consumers engaged is half the battle. Making fun privacy tools shouldn’t be that hard. The challenge will be to make them more widespread.

The Supreme Court’s Say on Surveillance?

Big national security news yesterday: a federal court judge has ruled that the NSA’s Section 215 metadata collection program is an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment.  TechDirt has a great wrap-up of Judge Leon’s opinion, but more than the excellent legal analysis on display, the case is one of the first big demonstrations of how the federal judiciary is being brought into the surveillance discussion post-Snowden.  The secretive structure of FISA Court, and the difficulty – if impossibility – of getting those cases into the Supreme Court or out into the sunshine made it very easy for the the courts to avoid judging the constitutionality of broad government surveillance.

Just last year in Clapper v. Amnesty International, the Supreme Court was able to side-step today’s question by holding that a group of international lawyers and journalists had no standing to challenge the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 because they could prove no harm.  The narrow majority deferred to the FISA Court’s ability to enforce the Fourth Amendment’s privacy guarantees, an assertion that has proven to be ridiculous. Snowden’s revelations have changed Clapper‘s standing equation, and this may force the Supreme Court’s hand.

After today, it appears all three branches of government may have a say in the future of the Fourth Amendment, and it seems likely they won’t be in agreement.  Involving the Third Branch in an active dialog about surveillance is essential not only because it can clarify the scope of Fourth Amendment but also because it may be in a position to break a separation of powers stalemate between Congress and the President.  In the end, the steady stream of lawsuits challenging the NSA’s activities may end up having a bigger legal impact than any congressional theatrics.

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A Few Thoughts on Two Different Privacy “Call to Arms”

On Tuesday, author Evgeny Morozov published a provocative essay in the MIT Technology Review, arguing that today’s privacy problem is really a democracy problem.  He argues that the imagination of privacy advocates has become constrained, fixating on giving individuals more “control” over their data without considering the negative effect of information automation in general.  In a timely coincidence, FTC Commissioner Julie Brill gave a speech where she declared a “call to arms” on new thinking about how to protect privacy . . . in the realm of engineers and technologists.

Both privacy “call to arms” have me rethinking what I want from protecting my privacy.  // More on the Future of Privacy Forum Blog.

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