A Conversation on Privacy

As a consumer in the United States, I exchange many things for my privacy all the time. Many of us do. We share our personal data to afford us new information and entertainment through face recognition apps and services like 23andMe. Our privacy is offered in exchange for convenience as we link new accounts to existing ones, accept cookies haphazardly, or store critical information in our browsers. Our privacy affords us small luxuries.

Luxury transforms into necessity for people at greater risk of abuse. Increased vulnerability leads to higher stakes if privacy is compromised. Imagine the privileged relationships in your life – a therapist, partner, friend. The intimate information we share with these people can leave us vulnerable, elevating consequences, if this information were exposed. In a time of ICE raids, undocumented immigrants in the United States live at risk of detainment and deportation if anonymity becomes compromised. Privacy can take on great costs in the forms of human dignity, freedom, and power. It is often our privacy that protects those things.

Rising stakes.

Stakes are rising while our data is collected, shared, and harvested. The longer our data’s shelf-life and more robust the database, the greater the unknown opportunities for data brokers and their customers. What may seem like an inconsequential risk for some, can become great in time.

Although relationships with privacy vary across privilege, influence, and access, as a society, we should incorporate diverse perspectives to reach a greater consensus on privacy’s importance – before other entities make assumptions on what it means for us.

Understanding potential for abuse.

To begin understanding the importance of privacy and its inherent stakes, I have started questioning the consequences of exchanging my privacy. When, and if, I knowingly consent to share my private data, how do I risk potential for abuse?


figure 1. measuring potential for abuse

These questions start to examine what is at stake when privacy is exchanged. If these are the costs, I may not be willing to play – either as a user or a designer.

Consequences for society.

The spread of our personal data has consequences for ourselves, but also for others. Our data support the creation of more powerful databases, making it easier for brokers and corporations to develop assumptions about individuals which can be used for the prediction and influence of behavior as well as discrimination against people. As a result, we’re all in this collectively – the skin we shed in our digital lives, affect not only ourselves but all those around us.

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figure 2. societal implications of abuse

Making consequences tangible.

While asking these questions and identifying risks, the consequences can sometimes still feel intangible. This is in part because I have much to learn about my digital fingerprint, both as a user and budding designer. With little understanding of my data lifecycle and the manifestation of its consequences in my everyday life, I risk spheres of influence capitalizing on my ignorance. This is a feeling true to many.

Value of shared language.

As a designer, I suggest we bring these questions to the forefront of every discussion.

As a business, what is our relationship with private user data? What is the potential for abuse? How is that reduced? How is it communicated to users?

To enact change, we must seek alignment by developing shared language amongst users, businesses, those operating within them, and policymakers.

We create public health grades for restaurants, why don’t we create privacy health grades for businesses? Let’s examine business relationships to privacy, map data lifecycles, and evaluate each privacy-related business practice against its potential for abuse. 

Do I place my health, or the health of others, at risk when dining at your restaurant?

We must empower users to clearly identify risks and easily make informed choices. 

With the goal of distilling complex information, designers should work alongside users, technologists, businesses, and policymakers, to make digital privacy and its potential for abuse, comprehensible and actionable.

Together, we can make meaningful, productive conversation start now.

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For questions, comments, or to continue this conversation, please contact me.