The Privacy Paradox

Most online users say that privacy matters, but many are often willing to give it up for the right price—generally, for free. For organizations, the goal is to hold yourself to a high standard with user data and to do so transparently.

To start out this blog post on privacy, I’m going to talk about the idea of covering your head and torso with a sack. No, really.

Recently, New York School of Visual Arts student Eden Lew came up with a concept for a product called “Nutshell.”

The product is a bit odd. Essentially, it’s a collapsible canvas bag that you wear over your body when you need a little time for yourself, with a headset designed to be used as an accessory. But the idea behind Lew’s design—her “ambitious goal of widely promoting the psychological benefits of solitude”—is nonetheless appealing. We all want more privacy, don’t we?


It’s not really practical, admittedly. There’s only so much you can do inside an opaque fabric bubble, and a little push could break your concentration. Plus, it looks kind of goofy.

“It looks a little like a body bag, and a little like a tiny tent,” iO9‘s Annalee Newitz graciously put it.

Say what you will, but this is kind of how we approach personal privacy online. Hear me out.

By the way, I don’t recommend putting a cat inside of a Nutshell. There’s not enough room for the two of you.

It’s Getting Dark in Here

Our privacy matters to us a lot, and we try to do everything we can to protect it. We put passwords on our content (even though they’re generally not good enough), we have private conversations (or at least we try to), and we’re sensitive about the things we share (because people keep proving that we have to).

But somewhere along the way, we sort of figured out that, as a society, the cat is out of the metaphorical bag, and we’re not sure how to get it back in. (By the way, I don’t recommend putting a cat inside of a Nutshell. There’s not enough room for the two of you.)

I’m not just making this up. A Pew Research study released last week found that 91 percent of respondents said that consumers have essentially lost control of how companies handle their personal information, and 80 percent of social media users said that they’re concerned about the information that third parties can collect about them on such sites.

But while we’re concerned, we’re apparently not that concerned. While 61 percent disagree with the idea that giving out personal data adds value to the online services they use, 55 percent of users are willing to give away that data to use a service for free.

The New York Times put it this way: “Americans Say They Want Privacy, but Act as if They Don’t.” You don’t get more blunt than that.

Looking Outside the Sack

So, is the alternative to having actual privacy the equivalent of putting a sack over our heads and pretending we have it? No criticism of Eden Lew’s creativity—she’s clearly more inventive with a sack on her head than I am without a sack on my head—but I certainly hope not.

Organizations—including the federal government in this case—hold a lot of the responsibility here, because they’re the ones on the hook for doing the right thing.

The situation is difficult to resolve, but the best approaches—say, like the one that Global Automakers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers announced last week—lean heavily on transparency.

The things our technology can do these days, with the right information, are pretty close to magic, but good luck explaining how technology does what it does to the layperson. Organizations need to explain what they’re doing in clear terms, so members and anyone affected by their industries can understand what they are trying to do with all that data.

Honesty and clarity are the best policies. “If you’re open with users about the data you track, how it’s secured, and what you use it for, you can clear that hurdle,” my colleague Joe Rominiecki wrote earlier this year in a post about how associations handle member data.

Even Facebook, the king of complicated privacy standards, is trying to clean up its act. Last week, it greatly cut down the size of its privacy policy and made it graphical and easy to read.

When you’re transparent, it’s easier for your members and other customers to trust you with their privacy. It shows that you’ve set a standard you live up to, and that those users have no reason to be paranoid.

Because—let’s face it—if people just wore sacks over their heads all the time, life would be really boring.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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