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By Thomas Baekdal - August 2011

What is a Violation of Privacy?

Last week I wrote an article called "Privacy, Smivacy. Tracking is not a problem." I took a stand against the inane propaganda put out by the privacy hooligans.

Their propaganda is working great. You can now be accused of violating people's privacy just because data is stored on one server instead of another.

The problems with the privacy community are two things. First: they are creating a reality distortion field around your rights to privacy. Second: they cannot tell the difference between a potential violation and an actual violation.

So, let's make it simple.

Your rights to privacy

Imagine that you are model plane enthusiast but you want to keep it a secret. As long as your are in your own home you have complete rights of privacy. You define the rules and everyone has to respect that.

However, if you were to take your model plane to a public park, everyone can watch what you are doing. Everyone can take pictures, tell it to their friends etc. You have no rights of privacy in a public place. You cannot tell other people not to look your way.

If you walk into a friend's garden, you, again, have no rights of privacy. Your friend can insist to be told what you are doing there, and you have to answer him-or leave. Your friend can observe all he wants. He can invite other friends to watch as well. He can take pictures or videos and even upload them to YouTube.

You can ask him to keep it a secret, but it is entirely up to your friend if he is going to accept it. It is his garden. He makes the rules. Just as in your garden you make the rules.

The privacy hooligans don't seem to understand this very simple concept. They believe that you should have the right to walk into anyones garden and do whatever you like, but the owner of that garden is not allowed to know that you are there.

The owner of the garden has to first ask for your permission. And you should have the right to say no while still demanding to be serviced-by your friend, in his garden.

It is insane!

This is happening online. When you are visiting a website, you are walking into someone else's garden. As such, the owner has the right to know what you are doing there. He has the right to observe you.

But with the cookie law in Europe, the privacy hooligans have now lobbied to make it illegal for the owners to observe their visitors-on their own websites.

Publisher's online "gardens"

For publishers (like me) the principle is the same. The website is our garden and you are the one visiting it. We have the right to know what you are doing here, and we have right to observe you, bring in external contractors, hire security guards etc.

But we want you to come to our gardens. We want you to have a great time. We want you to enjoy yourself and to come back often. In order to do that, we need to know what you want and what you like. Without this information we wouldn't be able to keep our garden open to you. Observing what you do is essential for our efforts to make you comfortable.

We also want to build trust. So, we offer that you can come to our garden, use the services that we provide, and we will not share it with the public. We will keep it a secret.

The privacy hooligans are trying to make you believe that this is a violation of your privacy. It is not. We are actually offering privacy when you are visiting our gardens. We are not taking it away.

A potential for a privacy violation vs. an actual violation

This leads us to the second problem with the privacy hooligan's propaganda, the potential for privacy violation.

In almost every single example, the "violation" is not actually a violation, it is just a potential one. It is essential that we distinguish between the two.

When you tell a friend something he is not violating your privacy. He has the potential but that is not a violation.

It is a simple concept that the privacy hooligans just don't seem to understand. They are trying to convince you that your friend is violating your privacy-just by listening to you. They say it is even worse if he writes it down. And if he stores it on a server somewhere in the cloud the privacy hooligans go ballistic.

An actual violation can only take place if your friend tells other people about it, or if other people "hacks" into the conversation. The information has to be made public before you privacy is violated.

Let us make a more complicated.

When you visit a shop, everyone inside will know about it. Not just the owner of the shop or the sales people, but also all the other customers.

All of them have just as much right to be there as you do. You do not have the right to shop in private. The people who owns the shop has the right to know what you doing and what you want. You are in someone else's garden.

It is the same if the shop hired a security company. The guards would also know what you are doing. The video surveillance feed will record it and it would be streamed to a central server somewhere in the world.

To build trust, the shop will offer to respect your privacy. They will not tell anyone else what you are doing. And when hiring the security company, the shop will ask them to sign a contract that states that they too cannot share any information about you.

The security guards will see and observe you but they will not share anything. The shop is protecting your privacy.

This doesn't mean that there isn't a potential for a violation. But hiring a security company is not a violation of privacy.

The privacy hooligans believe that you should have a choice. They say that you didn't agree that the shop hired a security company.

It is rather silly idea and it doesn't work. It is not your garden. You don't have the right to chose if a shop can hire a security company. You have a right to choose if you want to go to the shop, but not how the shop operates. If you don't trust the shop to hire the right partners, don't go there.

It is exactly the same online. When you visit a website, the server itself is likely to be hosted somewhere in the cloud. This site, for instance, is hosted at Rackspace.

I have hired Rackspace to provide my "shop" with a service. But I have also made sure that they agreed to a contract (terms of service) saying that they are not allowed to share any personal information.

That is not a violation of privacy. For your privacy to be violated, your personal information would have to end up in the hands of someone else.

It is the same for the many sites using Google Analytics.

I have received comments like this one:

When I visit, I accept that you track me and store my data. I don't make any such agreement with any third parties, Google or otherwise. Google isn't violating my privacy. Neither are they sharing my data with anybody. But when you use Google Analytics on your website, you are [violating my privacy].

This is just privacy propaganda. When you visit this site you have to accept the site as a whole. You accept that it is hosted at Rackspace. You accept that I use Cloudflare as my security guard. You accept that I use Disqus for posting comments. You accept that I use Facebook, Twitter, and Stumbleupon for social integration. And you accept that I use Google Analytics, Postrank and Chartbeat for analytics.

You have to trust that I manage it responsibly. Saying that you only accept a part is just silly. It's like going into a store and say that you accept the shelf with products on them, but you wont accept the cash register.

When I added Google Analytics to this site, I have to agree to a "terms of service" that states two things:

First: I, as a site owner, am not allowed to use Google Analytics to track personal information. I can track what you do, but not who you are. Your privacy is absolutely secured.

Second: Google is also not allowed to access or use any personal information for anything else than Google Analytics for the specific site. Google does not have the right to look at the raw data, or use your personal information in relation to any other Google service.

There is no privacy violation taking place.

Similarly, I am not sharing anything with Google. I am storing the data on Google's servers. If I share something with Google, I have to make it available for Google to *use*. I'm not. They are not allowed to use it in any way.

If Google would ever violate their terms of service, and the trust between us, I would drop them in a millisecond. I chose Google Analytics because I trust them to uphold the same privacy principles that I believe in myself.

But all of that is besides the point.

The point is that when you visit a website, you are visiting someone else's garden. The owner of that garden is likely to do everything he can to make you happy. That is what I'm trying to do here. He will even offer to keep your visit a secret and take steps to secure it stays that way.

But it is still his garden. He has the right to know why you are there and what you are doing. He decides what the garden should look like and what contractors to hire to make it work.

Privacy hooligans are saying you should have the right to exploit your friends. You should have the right to use their things, but your friends is not allowed to know about it. All because you friend might have the potential to share what you did in their gardens.

That is a very sad way to look at the world ...and I do not accept it. Neither should you.

Fight the people who actually do violate your privacy (it almost never happens.) And fight the privacy hooligans who try to convince you that everyone is a criminal. They started with cookies, but we all know it doesn't end there.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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