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Did You Miss Data Privacy Day?

Yesterday was international Data Privacy Day. You’ll be excused if you didn’t happen to notice.

For every one of the past several years, Capitol Hill folks have said things like, “THIS is the year some privacy legislation is going to move through Congress.” And it hasn’t yet.

Part of the reason it hasn’t happened is that data privacy is a really, really difficult issue. Most of us would assert that Americans have a general right to privacy, but what does that actually mean? There are many different pieces of federal legislation governing financial privacy, health privacy, student privacy, etc.  All of those laws recognize there is benefit to society, and to consumers, to allow access to their data in exchange for benefits of various kinds.

What changes just because life moves online? And what level of privacy do people expect to have from personal data that they voluntarily, eagerly, even voraciously, upload to public platforms and websites? When you uploaded that picture of your dinner at a restaurant and tagged it with the name of the restaurant, weren’t you voluntarily sharing information about yourself? And didn’t you have the option to not do that, if you truly value privacy?

So everyone’s in favor of privacy, but there are ginormous gaps between peoples’ expectations, and actual facts, law, and practical considerations.

For instance, to use GPS navigation, which almost everyone recognizes as a societal good, you have to agree to have your vehicle tracked. To use Uber, another service that is almost universally loved, you have to agree to not only let Uber have some of your personal information, but also agree to let Uber drivers rate you as a passenger and share that information with other Uber drivers. Same with AirBnB.

In the analog world we exchange data on our credit history in order to facilitate efficient issuance of consumer credit for mortgages, car loans, credit cards, and the like. And did you notice how, shortly after your child was born, you started getting mail about infant products? Did you think that was a coincidence? That was targeted advertising, except that it was analog, not digital.

Now, of course, there are concerns about online privacy, and the way online platforms are using their users’ data to target ads, etc. But for the most part consumers have already agreed to exchange basic personal data to gain access to more efficient goods and services in the analog world, and that same tradeoff is at work in the digital realm. There’s nothing new, or very little new, under the sun, as they say.

So, in general, we get an awful lot of value in services and products in exchange for sharing some of our very basic data. Many of the services you value and even depend on would not exist under some kind of absolute privacy legal regime.

We’ll be saying a lot more about online privacy this year, because it really is possible that this is the year for federal legislation, for various reasons. But a basic level set for online privacy requires Americans to remember that we already grant access to a great deal of our personal data in myriad ways in order to have access to the products and services of a modern economy, and we probably don’t want to disrupt that very much.