AUSTIN – Our smartphones record the most intimate details of our lives. We wear sensors on our bodies to record our heartbeats and literally every step we take. We’ve connected our homes, our city streets, our love lives – and, knowingly or not, opened up our lives to advertisers, data brokers or government agencies tracking that data.
As more personal data is collected about us than ever before, policymakers all over the world are debating how to embrace the benefits of new technology and still protect people’s privacy.
It’s an incredibly heated debate – in large part because there’s no universally accepted definition of privacy to emerge in the Digital Age.
In fact, people’s attitudes about privacy are deeply personal. At South by Southwest Interactive, an annual pilgrimage in Austin for tens of thousands of digerati from all corners of the world, we asked people what privacy means to them. Scroll to the right to see our photo series.
“To me, privacy means having control and knowledge of where my information’s going. And having the ability to share, or not share – and having the awareness of what’s being shared where.... Privacy’s a big deal. And it’s really complicated. And having to think about it – it’s a whole other level, even for someone who’s in technology.”
– Chelsea Maxwell, senior UX designer
“I’m a privacy person because I’m a free speech person. Privacy is the ability to have safe spaces to associate with others and to share controversial ideas and to explore controversial ideas – without fear of the tyranny of the majority or the elites to prevent you from doing so. Not only is that view of privacy I think heavily influenced by our Constitution, and by my understanding of what our founders were after, it’s also heavily colored by my family and my experience in the deep South where my family was deeply involved in the civil rights movement. I’ve seen the history of the government deliberately undermining social movements, undermining the anti-war movement, undermining the civil rights movement. Those in power using that power to violate those safe spaces and undermine their political enemies. If I have any one motivation in my work, it is to protect people from that.”
– Kevin Bankston, director at New America’s Open Technology Institute
“Privacy means to have my own say. It means to decide on my own. If somebody taps in, uninvited, that’s not privacy anymore. You’re invading my privacy... To me, it means to be able to make your own decisions and stand on it, that’s privacy.”
– Lindewe Maxolo, independent artist
“Privacy is a very complicated and layered notion. It means a lot of things. Chief among them, from my perspective: Privacy means fairness. How do we allow people to be treated appropriately in terms of their digital lives, as well as their offline lives. How do we ensure that they have access and control to their information? How do we ensure that information is used not to harm them, but to benefit them? Another concept is that privacy is about the future for all of us – in terms of algorithmic decision-making, in terms of big data and discrimination. How do we ensure that people have autonomy and can direct their future in a way that isn’t predetermined based on certain things that they’ve done in the past?”
– Julie Brill, Federal Trade Commissioner
“Privacy means everything. In the world of quantified self and smart phones that track where you are, it is the digital version of yourself. And if you don’t have privacy, you’re letting more of yourself out there than you realize. It’s everything. It’s you.”
– Wesley Faulkner, director of social media at startup Namecheap
“I think about privacy as control over your own data and your own life in a lot of ways. As someone who comes from a background that isn’t necessarily the mainstream – my parents were immigrants, I’m South Asian, I’m gay – there’s all these things we have to think about our identities and what we reveal to the world. We all construct ourselves in different ways and privacy is a big part of that. One the things that I’ve been thinking about lately is about privacy and secondhand smoke – this idea that I make my own choices about what I do, but what I do with my data can also affect other people. Just like I can chose to smoke, but people next to me shouldn’t have to deal with it. And that intersection of privacy and data and speech is really complicated, really interesting and something the public is much more aware of now.”
– G.S. Hans, policy and counsel director at the Center for Democracy & Technology
“Privacy is the ability to choose how my information is interpreted and used. In some ways privacy is the thing that lets you be you – me be me.
It is the way that we let ourselves interact with the world rather than being forced to interact with the world in ways that we don’t like.”
– Heather West, senior policy manager for Mozilla
“In a philosophical sense it’s not a big deal if some things leak, but it’s more of a principle that you want to feel secure and you want to feel that your stuff is safe.
I think the principle is bigger than the threat for me - my stuff is not that secret, but I just don’t want it to be everywhere.”
– Ville Ailio, manager and consultant for startups
“Privacy to me means everything. The information we put out there, the information we have on our phones, is private. The SMS’s we send, the numbers we save, what we say… It’s just private, it’s for me. It’s for me and those and those that I communicate with. It’s not information that I want to share with anybody else.”
- Sonwabiso N., music promoter
“I don’t worry about Internet security, I try not to do too much on it. With my house, I can lock it – with the Internet I don’t care what lock there is, they can get past it.”
– Josh B., construction worker
“I really question if privacy really exists. My perception is that it probably doesn’t. It’s just a fallacy that’s put out there but doesn’t really exist… There are apps that say that they are really private and that they encrypt messages, but I really question even those.”
– Yariely Rodriguez, advertising (on right)
“Privacy is something that we all take for granted. We all believe we have privacy. If you are in your house and you have your door closed and your window’s shut, you believe that you are in your private space. But maybe you are not. In terms of apps and social media and emails - it’s something that I grew up with, so I’m used to trusting those platforms. And when I think about it - they may be watching my personal information, they may be reading my emails and text messages. It’s scary, but it’s not a reason for me to quit using those platforms. They work for me and give me a service and maybe it’s wrong for me to continue using them, but I feel like it’s something that’s beyond my control… When I start asking these questions to myself, I feel powerless. So I can’t worry about it. I’m not a hacker, and I don’t feel like I can do anything.”
– Jenny Lopez Vasques, advertising (on left)
“Privacy to me means a respect of space and personal boundaries. Just trying to keep your personal information, no matter what it is, for yourself – so it doesn’t leak and get out. Privacy is something that should be respected by all people… People should have their private information secure just like they would have alarm monitoring at home to keep them secure at night.”
– Mason Gimes, security worker
“I think anyone can hack anything and they can get whatever they want, but you just have to be smart about it. I’m naïve in the sense that - knock on wood - nothing bad has happened yet. But I’m sure that if something did happen, I’d be a little bit more cautious.”
– Kimberly, engineer