The sound of chickens coming home to roost

The sound of chickens coming home to roost
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The issue of privacy, or more generally and accurately the issue of who owns what data, and the rights and obligations associated with the use of that data have clearly shot up the public agenda. A term that a few years ago would have been associated with what you could and couldn’t do or say in your own home is now the topic of daily discussion in the context of Google, Facebook, the NSA and GCHQ. What hasn’t been clear however is just how concerned the average person is about data privacy, and what impact that is having on their behaviour.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) has just published (2013-09-30) research which suggests that people are concerned, and that their concerns translate into behaviour, and that those behaviours have big implications for the future of the online world. Their key finding is that six in every 10 Australians choose not to use smartphone apps because of concerns about the way their personal information will be used. That’s a lot of users to lose.

Commenting on the research, the Australian Privacy Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, makes it quite clear that there are big implications for organisations who want to survive and thrive on the internet: “It is ultimately in an app developer’s best interest to build strong privacy protection into their product. The mobile apps that take privacy seriously will be the ones that stand out from the crowd and gain user trust and loyalty”.

It’s a theme we’ve repeatedly addressed in this blog; although short term it may seem very attractive to exploit people’s apparent willingness to hand over their personal data, the longer term consequences of these unfair exchanges are extremely costly. A problem of course is that all app developers, and all internet players get tarred with the same brush: when you poison the well, you poison everybody’s water.

Given that the water has been well and truly poisoned, is there an antidote? Pilgrim addresses this issue: “People are increasingly expecting transparency about how their personal information is handled, so it’s important to get informed consent from people so they can decide whether or not to install an app,” and he notes that “Informed consent requires that users be told about the privacy implications of an app in a way they can understand.” That means Privacy Policies that are written in plain English, and can actually be read on the screen of a mobile device, and can be read in a minute or so, rather than the 20-30 mins that the average Privacy Policy currently demands.

Switching to a way of operating that makes privacy an integral and core feature of the online world is going to be a big change, but this research suggest that it is going to necessary if the online world is going to be a good place to be in the longer term.