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Revision as of 20:33, 22 February 2019 by Tom (talk | contribs) (User Rights)

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Full Title or Meme

Privacy is the right to be let alone. [1]


Everyone wants some privacy, but no one can explain that in a way that matches anyone else's desire for privacy. Privacy is associated with liberty, but also with privilege (private roads, private schools), with confidentiality (private conversations) with nonconformity, with dissent, with shame, with embarrassment, with the deviant, with the taboo, with subterfuge and concealment.[2]

In his dissent to a 1952 Supreme Court decision[3] Justice Douglas issued this stirring defense of the right to be let alone:

"If liberty is to flourish, government should never be allowed to force people to listen to any radio program. The right of privacy should include the right to pick and choose from competing entertainments, competing propaganda, competing political philosophies. If people are let alone in those choices, the right of privacy will pay dividends in character and integrity. The strength of our system is in the dignity, the resourcefulness, and the independence of our people. Our confidence is in their ability as individuals to make the wisest choice. That system cannot flourish if regimentation takes hold. The right of privacy, today violated, is a powerful deterrent to any one who would control men's minds."

The above statement seems to state that the people's character and integrity will be enhanced by the right to pick their own sources of information. There is ample reason to doubt that statement in light of the environment in 2018 where populist demagogues are again persuading people to vote against their own interests by manipulating news sources that appeal to the peoples' prurient interests. [4] But the statement does seem to clarify that privacy is about liberty, the right to do what you want with yourself, with your attention and with your belongings.

The context that is most often discussed for computer systems is user's data protection rather than intrusions into a user's attention. Bill Gates put it this way:[5]

[We don't generally] distinguish among the types of data being collected - the kind of shoes you like to buy versus which diseases you're genetically predisposed to - or who is gathering it, or how they're using it. Your shopping history and our medical history aren't collected by the same people, protected by the same safeguards or used for the same purposes. Recognizing this distinction would [make our] discussions more enlightening.

But the subject of most interests to users is identity theft and unexpected (creepy is the word most often used) knowledge about what users have been viewing and how that impacts the messages that are targeted to a user. So the context reported in the technical press is typically more about a computer site's legal liability rather than the users' experience. In other words, the challenge understood by computer sites today is the user's rights, rather than the user's privacy expectations.

User and Web Site Acceptance for Privacy Seals

Back in 2000 the FTC had the following to say.[6] There is no evidence to-date that things have changed for the better.

The 2000 Survey also examined the extent to which industry's primary self-regulatory enforcement initiatives online privacy seal programs have been adopted. These programs, which require companies to implement certain fair information practices and monitor their Compliance, promise an efficient way to implement privacy protection. However, the 2000 Survey revealed that although the number of sites enrolled in these programs has increased over the past year, the seal programs have yet to establish a significant presence on the Web. The Survey found that less than one-tenth, or approximately 8%, of sites in the Random Sample, and 45% of sites in the Most Popular Group, display a privacy seal.


  • Privacy has no real basis in history or law before the Warren and Brandeis article[1] in 1890 as it does not exist in the tribal societies which predated civilizations nor in the autocracies that dominated until the enlightenment of the mid 1800s when access to the posting of private mail became available to every citizen in the developed countries of the world. Since Hebb's experiments starting in 1951 we have known exactly how complete isolation can dive anyone into insanity,[7] so extreme Privacy should not be considered to be healthy, even if it were possible. Nor can Privacy be considered an absolute right since we also want to support the state in bringing malefactors to justice. It will most likely be many years before we learn to strike the right balance, particularly in view of the many other changes still underway is social structures.
  • Users or Consumers have always been a real asset to any business and access that provides user attention (aka eyeballs) to a message is now a commodity to be bought and sold on the internet.
  • The great amount of attention currently focused on Privacy is having the unfortunate effect of accretion of unrelated concerns which are not related to the right to be let alone.[8] The following are some of the topics listed by the New York Times as a part of that accretion to the term: (1) employers use Facebook s' advertising platform to show certain job ads only to men, to young folk, or to any other category selected by the advertiser, (2) Google collects the where-abouts of its users - even after they deliberately turn off location history, (3) AT&T shares its mobile customers' locations with data brokers. Regardless of whether these behaviors are good are bad, these are social not privacy issues.
  • Technology, and social media in particular,[9] record nearly every transaction that we make, and can retrieve it for any purpose not explicitly disallowed by regulation. The amount of information that Facebook has accumulated about people is far more than most people understand.[10] The constantly evolving problem is to keep the laws protecting citizens from depredations by large organization up-to-date in the face of rapidly accelerating change.
  • See the page Identity Theft for financial issues created by release of User Private Information.
  • See the page Privacy Risk for more details on how an Enterprise could mitigate risks associated with holding User Private Information.


The number of governments that have proposed "Solutions" to the invasions of "The Right to Privacy"[1] is large[11], but the results are meager and most law enforcement agencies are often in court trying to use any loop-hole to strip away privacy; especially in cases where products have been specifically designed to maintain privacy.[12] The same laws that protect privacy also protect criminal behavior. Not that privacy laws always make sense; US federal law prohibits the National Tracing Center from using a searchable data base to identify the owners of guns seized at crime scenes. No privacy advocate has yet recommended that law be repealed.

The solutions shown below are basically targeted to user's rights, privacy figures in most of these, but the connection is often a stretch. It might be appropriate at this time change the name of the topic "privacy" to "user rights".

Technology Solutions

Privacy Enhancing Technology Providers have been proposed and are actively available from Microsoft and IBM. Their uptake has been negligible because of two factors: they are clumsy for users and they don't provide much privacy. The real problem facing users today is how to stop digital agents from using your information once they acquire it. The GDPR is designed to control the movement of users private data from one enterprise to another. The State of California now has a initiative scheduled for ballot that focuses more on places where your data exits. But neither of them addresses the problem of your data in some third world country, or island nation, from misuse. In some ways the GDPR is a scam in that it is more about penalizing corporations in California for the benefit of bureaucrats in Europe than helping with existing loss of privacy.

The Right to be Let Alone

Most of the legislation and press is actually about Information Sharing which is not the original Warren and Brandeis definition. User attention is actually what advertisers want, Information Sharing just helps the advertiser to target the audience. Ad Blockers do address user attention as does Native App Privacy with focuses on apps that may demand user attention by sending notification messages to the screen at any time they wish. Fortunately the Smart Phone operating systems all allow fine grained user control of notifications from apps. But this is one area that receive little attention until an article from MIT[13] that describes the de-anonymization of location data which is sold to companies that want to see where traffic patterns concentrate. It turns out that if I know where you go, I can figure out who you are.

Personal Recommendations

Like many people, there is a tendency for Enterprises to try to project their own failures elsewhere and proclaim their own innocence. Privacy concerns are just another case where they try to blame the user for not solving the problem. Here are some ideas that Users can take to protect their privacy, not that it should be their obligations, but because Web Sites continue to be so poor at helping. Some of the ideas come from the past president of the Direct marketing Association.[14] who seems to think that any solution "has to start with consumers". Other commentators are more forceful like Ellen Pad's article in Wired[15] who "thinks they don’t care about their users and how their platforms work to harm many, and so they don’t bother to understand the interactions and amplification that result. They’ve been trained to not care." In any case you are the only person who really cares about your privacy.

  • Don't use Facebook to buy things. As a part of their effort to stop "Fake Identifiers" Facebook will abruptly terminate accounts, so any place you use a Facebook sign-in might suddenly become unavailable.
  • Don't stay logged into Web Sites like Facebook that track your every move.
  • Don't take surveys or tell Web Sites about your preferences. The pollster may be selling your options to those who want to market to you.
  • Run an "Ad blocker" that stops the ability of third party sites, present as ads on your screen, from loading, or from storing cookies on your device. This will also speed up your download times often by huge amounts.
  • Help efforts like the citizen initiative[16] filed with the secretary of state in California to limit the sale of user data.[17] Did not even need to go to the ballot because the CA legislature acted first.
  • Pay attention to security and privacy notifications on your computer; often you will be able to "just say no".
  • Freeze your credit ratings as described on this site.
  • Never click on a link or call a phone number that you cannot validate as legitimate, most especially in an email supposedly from "a friend" who may have provided access to their contacts lists.
  • Be kind to your fiends by never giving any but your trusted email app access to your contacts list.

International Regulations

US Federal Regulations

  • ACM's U.S. Technology Policy Committee (USACM) this week (2018-07-02) submitted recommendations to the Senate Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security that focus on protecting personal privacy in the wake of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal. USACM urged Congress to immediately act to protect the public good and the integrity of the democratic process by addressing technical and ethical issues raised by the data breach. Specifically, USACM wants Congress to draft and adopt comprehensive personal privacy protection legislation extending beyond social media to meet nine critical goals, including limiting collection/minimizing retention of personal data; clarifying and simplifying User Consent processes and maximizing user control of data, and simplifying data-sharing policies and assuring data-flow Transparency. USACM chair Stuart Shapiro says the organization has significant expertise in the technical and ethical aspects of the case, and looks forward to serving as an apolitical resource for Congress in pursuit of solutions.[18]
  • The tech industry lobbying group "Information Technology Industry Council" is aggressively "lobbying officials of the Trump administration and else where to start outlining a federal privacy law." to "overrule the California law and instead put into place a kinder set of rules that would give the companies wide leeway over how personal digital information was handled."[19] According to reviews of their proposals[20] it seems that this group is trying to weaken the privacy laws in comparison to the ones in California or Europe.
  • HIPPA and COPPA offer legislative protections respectively to the sectors of Health Care patients and children under the age of 13.
  • The financial sector heavyweights have banded together with the law firm Venable and former NIST senior executive Jeremy Grant, to form the Better Identity Coalition" to focus (in their own words) "on developing and advancing consensus-driven, cross-sector policy solutions that promote the development and adoption of better solutions for identity verification and authentication." It seems like every sector wants to offer their own sector's version of a cross-sector solution.
  • The Federal Trade Commission’s report on mobile privacy: Mobile Privacy Disclosures: Building Trust Through Transparency
  • Legislation was signed by the president (2018-09-14) that does more to make your data your property by forcing credit agencies to allow free control by the consumer.
  • National Telecommunications and Information Administration is conducting a comprehensive review of the nexus between privacy policy and innovation in the Internet economy which is updated nearly every month.
  • NIST has updated the Risk Management Framework to include privacy considerations (2018-05-11).
  • NIST has published draft 5 of the SP 800-53 publication on Security and Privacy Controls for Information Systems and Organizations (2018-08) which nominally applies only to federal non-defense systems, but is often used in commercial systems as well.
  • NIST has started (2018-11-29) a year long effort to establish a Privacy Framework.

US State Regulations

User Rights

In general discussions about privacy are focused on the Privacy Risk experienced by data collections and their efforts to avoid legal liability. Here we try to focus on the rights that users have in the digital world.

  1. Legal rights are discussed on this site.
  2. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states in article 12 - "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks."
  3. While the UDHR has no legal basis in most countries, it is followed at one level or another in nearly all of them.

GDPR grants these rights

  • The right to be informed
    • You must provide data subjects with various pieces of information about the data processing activities you carry out.
    • This information is usually provided in a Privacy Notice or Privacy Statement.
    • The information must be:
      • concise, transparent, intelligible and easily accessible;
      • written in clear and plain language; and
      • free of charge.
  • The right of access
  • You must provide data subjects with:
    • confirmation their data is being processed;
    • access to their personal data; and
    • other supplementary information.
  • You must comply with any subject access request within one month of receipt.
    • You cannot charge a fee unless the request is “manifestly unfounded or excessive”.
    • Where you process a large quantity of information you can ask the data subject to specify the information they want access to.
    • You may refuse to comply with a subject access request where this is “manifestly unfounded or excessive”.
    • The right to rectification
    • Data subjects can have their personal data rectified if it is inaccurate or incomplete.
    • You must comply with any request to rectify within one month of receipt. This can be extended to 2 months where the request is complex.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Warren and Brandeis The Right to Privacy (1890-12-15) Harvard Law Review
  2. Louis Menand Nowhere to Hide: Why Do We Care So Much About Privacy? The New Yorker June 18, 2018
  3. Public Utilities Comm'n v. Pollak, 343 U.S. 451 (1952)
  4. Eduardo Porter, Is the Populist Revolt Over? Not if Robots Have Their Way
  5. Bill Gates, Thinking Big (2018-09-09) The New York Times Book Review p1. ff
  7. Michael Mechanic, What Extreme Isolation Does to Your Mind. (2012-10-18) Mother Jones
  8. Natasha Singer, Just Don't Call it Privacy. (2018-09-23) New York Times p. SR 4
  9. Sarah Igo, The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America 2018 ISBN 978-0674737501
  10. Brian X. Chen
  12. Jack Nicas Apple to Close iPhone Security Hole That Law Enforcement Uses to Crack Devices
  13. Rob Matheson, The privacy risks of compiling mobility data. (2018-12-07) MIT News Office
  14. Linda Woolley, Letter to the Editor. (2018-09-02) New York Times Magazine p. 7
  15. Ellen Pad, Let's Stop Pretending Facebook and Twitter's CEOs Can't Fix This Mess. (2018-08-28)
  16. Mary Ross, Alastair Mactaggart, The Consumer Right to Privacy Act of 2018
  17. Daisuke Wakabayashi Silicon Valley Faces Regulatory Fight on Its Home Turf May 13, 2018
  18. USACM Calls on Congress to Enact Comprehensive Consumer Privacy Protections (2018-07-02)
  19. Cecilia Kang, Pursuing Law on Privacy, With Caveats. (2018-08-27) New York Times p. B1,ff
  20. Bernadette Tansey, Tech Industry Lobby Proposes Data Privacy Laws; Critics Call Them Weak. (2018-10-22) Xconomy
  21. CA Privacy Web Site