UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Are Attitudes Towards Privacy Changing?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 29 Feb 2012


Liz Lyon, UKOLN Director, recently gave a talk on “The Informatics Transform: Re-engineering Libraries for the Data Decade” at the VALA 2012 conference held in Melbourne, Australia.

The abstract for the talk describes how:

This talk will present a case for a new and transformative library paradigm which delivers innovative informatics services to support data-intensive research. It will draw on cutting-edge exemplars from open data initiatives, public participation and citizen science, socio-ethical challenges with personal data, policy drivers, emergent scholarly communications and research impact metrics /tools, all of which are radically changing the research landscape. The presentation will explore how libraries can respond to these challenges with novel informatics services, new data support roles and pioneering strategic partnerships.

I was particularly interested in the “socio-ethical challenges with personal data” address in the talk. In the talk (and note that a recording of the talk is available) Liz described how a genome kit can be purchased for $99 (or, I discovered, from £59 in the UK).

It seems there are a number of DNA tests which can be carried out including paternity tests, forensic tests and ancestry tests. The DNA ancestry test enables you to:

Discover your deep ancestral roots using genetic genealogy. Find out where your ancestors came from, discover their ethnic background, and trace the roots of your surname.

If you order the test:

Your collection kit will have everything that you need to collect a DNA sample from inside your mouth. It’s fast, painless and simple and very similar to brushing your teeth. The entire process takes just seconds to complete. 

Does that seem appealing or does it fill you with horror? Do you really want to discover such information which would never have been previously available? And although your personal information may be confidential, will anonymised  findings be aggregated to reveal patterns of Viking ancestry around the UK?

In her talk Liz remarked on the privacy implications of such technical developments. Liz went on to report on a Nature survey which, as illustrated below, showed that “Nature readers flirt with personal genomics“. As described in the article:

Nature readers are eager to adopt these new technologies. About 18% report having had their genomes analysed in some way, ranging from whole-genome sequencing (about 10 respondents, after correcting for reporting errors) to direct-to-consumer tests. Of the remainder, 66% say they would have their genome sequenced or analysed if the opportunity arose.

I do wonder whether we are starting to see significantly changing attitudes developing towards privacy issues as technology drives developments not only for genome analyses but also, and more relevant to this blog, revelation of private information whether directly or, through aggregation of data, indirectly?

It seems to me that the forthcoming ‘cookie’ legislation will help to gain an understanding of the general public’s concerns over privacy issues. Those who developed the EU cookie directives felt it was important to ensure that users of web sites are made aware of personal information which is stored in cookies. But cookies have been with us since 1994. What if the cookie legislation, and the requirement for users to opt-in to cookies, results in a backlash, with people wishing to go back to the simplicity of today’s environment in which cookies are invisible to most people. It will be interesting to see how users will respond. And I should add that I’m saying this as someone who has a Facebook account and who, several years ago, installed the a Firefox plugin which enables me to block cookies – but has never done so. Indeed using the plugin for the first time in ages I notice that there are currently 18 cookies set. Am I bothered? The answer is no. Should I be? You tell me. Do you block cookies?

5 Responses to “Are Attitudes Towards Privacy Changing?”

  1. We are going to need to shift to a cultural attitude where invading privacy is prevented by taboo rather than technology or legislation. We need people who invade privacy to be shunned. We need a culture where the idea of invading privacy is revolting.

    Or we need to give up on privacy entirely.

    People are willing to give up some privacy in exchange for convenience, but that needs to be their choice.

    • I think this is the crucial point and is in fact the purpose behind the new EU wide legislation. Web users are willing to give up some privacy in exchange for convenience, but that needs to be their own choice in each particular instance. The option is to give up some privacy to particular companies and organisations in exchange for the services they provide. It should not be a matter of surrender of all the personal data that can be collected about the individual.

      • But the EU legislation only address use of cookies, which is only a small aspect of privacy.

        I agree with Chris’s point that we need to recognise that technology or legislation won’t provide an answer. But the question is which way cultural attitudes will shift. If, for example, someone took a photo of Chris at the recent Dev8D event and uploaded that to Flickr, that has nothing to do with Flickr or cookies. But should signed form of consent be expected before the photo was uploaded, or will people be happy if reasonable (i.e. non embarrassing) photos are uploaded with formal agreement? And note that there do seem to be lots of photos of people taken at Dev8D

  2. […] background-position: 50% 0px; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : no-repeat; } – Today, 2:30 […]

  3. Kriss said

    This has appeared on my reading list recently and is interesting not just for all the useful info about blocking but it’s given me a detailed interpretation of what Google is doing. Clearly I need to check this out in more detail especially as Google provides my work email, calendar etc and I also have a Google account for various personal activities – though not email. It’s the first time I’ve seen such concerted efforts to block Google tools specifically.

    Would be interested in hearing your views on this. I’ve also noticed some very basic guides to preventing Google tracking your searches appearing on the FB statuses/blogs of some quite non-techie friends, so I wonder if concern about personal data sharing is starting to filter down to people who might otherwise not be aware of the implications of using the technology.

    I’m really intrigued by the genome testing, knowing friends who’ve done this. But I just don’t trust the companies not to sell on the personal data at some point in the future (one of my friends commented that he felt safe giving his genome data to 23andme because the people who run it are associated with Google, his employer). There’s a really big difference between giving up information/personal data for your own use and benefit, and inadvertently sharing it in a way that will give companies useful business data about the population which they can then exploit financially. Similarly, I don’t block cookies, but if I did searches for anything that could be held against me, eg porn, weapons manufacture, I’d be a damn sight more careful.

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