What is privacy, really?

Last issue we examined anonymity in the context of identity issue discussions. Over and over again people confuse anonymity with privacy. As we concluded in that discussion, anonymity means that no one knows who performs a certain activity. Privacy is far different.

Almost five years ago, at the last of the late, lamented Digital ID World conferences, The Burton Group's Bob Blakley (now part of Gartner) spoke on the topic, "What is Privacy, Really?"

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Privacy is a widely misunderstood concept, according to Bob. It's frequently confused with anonymity, often confounded with security and colloquially termed the "right to be left alone." As Blakley put it, "I don't want to be alone, but I still want privacy."

After about 20 minutes of telling us what privacy wasn't, Blakley came around to stating what it was: "The ability to lie about yourself and get away with it."

He was quick to point out that it wasn't positing a right to lie (that's an ethical, or legal question), just the ability to lie. What that means is that when someone asks you a question and you reply with an answer, the questioner cannot judge the veracity of your information. As Blakley more elegantly stated it: "If you could tell a listener the truth or tell him a lie ... And if he would accept either story ... then he has given you the benefit of the doubt ..."

I often use this principle when dealing with obnoxious registration forms, those portals that try to collect all sorts of identifiers, demographics and marketing info from me in order to grant me access to a white paper, software evaluation or other product or document.

Not only do I have the ability to lie and get away with it, I often exercise that ability. Quite a few people (almost all of them outside the realm of marketing) claim you have a right to lie under those circumstances. There are some, in fact, who claim it is your duty to lie in that case. I'm not ready to go that far. I'll give up my e-mail address provided I can customize the extent of the materials that might be sent to that address and can opt out of the more spam-like marketing efforts. But I can see no reason to cough up details of my business, number of employees, target date for purchase, types of computers, operating systems, applications, etc., simply to read a high-class marketing document (after all, that's what a white paper is these days).

Blakley went on to talk about the use of an identity provider (IDP) acting as an agent to dispense accurate data on our behalf and with enough granularity so that only the data absolutely necessary for a transaction is distributed. That means, of course, that you need a trustworthy IDP.

Privacy requires trust. But if trust is involved, then anonymity isn't.

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