In the late 19th century privacy right in the United States was primarily tied to property. It came from the fourth and fifth amendment of the US Constitution that protected your rights against self-incrimination and search and seizures. Essentially the government could not use your stuff as a way to incriminate you.
Later on privacy rights took on a new form. Instead of protecting your stuff they protected your “reasonable expectation of privacy.” It was about a right to be left alone and free from intrusion.
But these are protections from the government. Search engines like Google are private companies. You’re not forced to interact with Google. You’re free to use DuckDuckGo for any of the other privacy focused search sites. So in a sense they’re not even taking your information in so much as your giving it to them.
But it’s not a free gift, it’s more of a business exchange. They give me access to their vast stores of organized search results and you give them access to small amounts of personal interests.
I along with billions of others have entered into this bargain with Google and now they have amassed a treasure trove of big data.
Now the outstanding question is how can Google ethically use that data? Or how can any company that now finds itself the beneficiary of massive data sets?
For that, you have to move beyond the 19th century notion that your privacy comes from something that’s tied to you. You also have to move beyond the more modern notion that privacy is a set of guidelines that is tied to your communication. Instead you should start to think of privacy as a series of transactions that you should control.
It’s this control that’s going to be one of the greatest ethical challenges for a modern organization. Most of your customers will think of their private information as an extension of themselves. That’s why you’ll typically hear them say, “my credit card information” or “my date of birth.” So as an organization you want to be careful in how you accept their trust. Most customers would be comfortable sharing their information if they thought it was in their own best interests.
But if you use that information to manipulate your customer or exploit their weaknesses then in their eyes you’ll be violating that trust. So when you use a customer’s private information usually think of it in three ways.
1. Are you using this information to benefit the customer or solely benefit your organization?
2. If the customer knew about your transaction would they feel like you were violating their trust?
3. Is the customer freely giving you this private information or are you capturing it without their consent?
Your organization will be on ethically much firmer ground if your customer feels like they’re getting a fair deal in the exchange. On the other hand, if they feel like you’re manipulating them or covertly capturing the information then you might be in real danger of violating that trust.
Just recently I was recently having dinner with my 12-year-old son and I could tell he was thinking about something. He gathered up his courage and asked me, “Do you think I’m too hairy?”
I was surprised and asked him, “You mean your head or your face?” Then he said, “no, I think I need more manscaping.”
After dinner he went up to his room and he showed me what he was talking about. Each of the Youtube videos he watched had a short advertisement on body grooming. There were razor-less chest shaving kits and a special hair removing gel. There was a video of a man wearing a towel and then reaching under to snip clumps of hair that fell between his feet.
They were showing up every five minutes. Even as my son hit “skip” in his search for gamer tips and movie spoilers. I didn’t realize it at the time but it was my fault. A few days earlier I had researched an electric razor on our shared family computer. My son was logged into YouTube and so Google picked up my search.
From there things got ethically complicated. Instinctively I felt like our privacy had been violated. But Google was essentially living up to its promise. It was giving us very targeted advertising. This seemed far more efficient than the old cable news days where I had to watch advertisements for senior vitamins and meat lover’s pizzas.
But it felt like Google was more than just meeting my needs. Instead it seemed like it was trying to create the need. I had searched for a lot of things on our shared computer. My son wasn’t being overrun by Instant Pot recipes, organic dried beans or low cost index funds.
It felt like our data was being used against us. Google felt like it was using my search to create a market for their other advertisers. It was designed to make us feel bad about ourselves and then presented a potential cure.
When you’re making these ethical decisions as an organization, you have to ensure that your customer doesn’t feel like you’re violating their trust. Otherwise you could leave the customer feeling like they’re being violated or exploited.