Thoughts on Privacy

Privacy has always been an important topic but has taken on increased attention in the last year. But first – what do we mean by privacy?  I think a good definition is that privacy is the ability to be free from being observed or bothered and to determine whether, if, and how information isto be revealed.  Privacy is a broad concept and ranges from the physical to information about us to our thoughts and ideas and can be related to both individuals and groups or organizations.

Our society sees privacy not just as a desirable state but as a basic human right.  The right to privacy, while actually not explicitly stated, is thought to be clearly implied in the Bill of Rights and later constitutional amendments via their protection of beliefs (1st), home (3rd), person (4th), information (5th) and basic liberties (14th).  Similar protections exist in other free countries.

Psychological research has shown what is intuitively obvious – privacy is a basic human need, perhaps not at the level of our physical or security needs but a strong need nonetheless. It is natural to want and to protect a private space.  We lower the blinds on our windows and seek out places in nature to be alone.  Young children have very little privacy, they gain more as they mature.  Privacy affirms our dignity and makes us feel respected.  The founders of our nation recognized this need and protected it. They also recognized the risk and tendency of government to overreach and drew a protective line.

The importance of this need and subsequent right to privacy leads to the tremendous anxiety we feel when this right is violated.  Learning that our online account is hacked is the modern day equivalent of the enemy tribe invading our territory or a robber entering our home.  It is not surprising that emotions run high when this happens as many women shared in this SheByShe survey.

Despite its importance, we willingly and frequently make compromises around privacy.  At a personal level, sharing private thoughts and feelings leads to intimacy – intimacy cannot be achieved without relinquishing some privacy – and our intimate relationships are precious.  We compromise privacy to enable others such as doctors to help us.  More commonly, we compromise privacy for convenience.  There are innumerable benefits we reap when we use modern technologies to manage our lives.  But we make those compromises based on the promises of the companies whose products we are using. And they are our compromises to specifically make.

When we give up some of our privacy to loved ones, professionals or organizations we are trusting them with something precious. When our government crosses the privacy line or the promises of a company we relied on were not kept, it is our human nature to react viscerally. We go beyond the intellectual and feel it in our gut.  It is a violation.  There is even more sensitivity to this topic in places where those violations were systematic in the past.  The Orwellian state so well depicted in “The Life of Others” actually happened.  It is no wonder that Europe has led the US in advocating for privacy protections.

Modern internet businesses have tremendous responsibility.  The most sensitive of information can be in our online accounts and too often those responsibilities have been breached.  To make matters worse, those breaches have often not been accompanied by adequate acknowledgement of or remorse for the breach. I am amazed by the lackadaisical and casual attitude from Facebook on their most recent “research” project.

Not surprisingly, I am in favor of stronger privacy protections from our government.  At the moment it seems as if we have the “fox watching the chicken coop” and both political parties are guilty (something about absolute power corrupting absolutely).  Stronger oversight and privacy advocacy is needed.  Stricter rules for company privacy and consequences for violations are important as well. If they care about this topic, consumers need to vote with their feet and patronize companies that better respect and value privacy.

In the case of services dominated by large near-monopolies such as Google and Facebook, however, that vote becomes impractical. The tremendous economies of scale in search have meant that solutions offering enhanced privacy such as DuckDuckGo are less robust and the tremendous network effects in social networking have made it incredibly difficult to create a real alternative to Facebook.

When facing difficult problems I often think of this phrase by John Sloan Dickey, which I first heard at Dartmouth.   “The world’s troubles are your troubles … and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.”  Humans created this problem so I’m optimistic that “better humans” can solve it. Technology is part of the problem but can also be the solution.

Brilliant humans have invented the many forms of modern cryptography and encryption and the public key architecture that makes it usable at scale.  There is still a tremendous gap, however. These secure encryption solution are not easy enough to use – there are simply too many usability hurdles.  For instance, TrueCrypt and its alternatives can be used in combination with public cloud solutions such as SugarSync and DropBox to ensure data privacy but this is not usable or practical for most people. Secure email solutions and private browsing options such as Tor also lack ease of use.

I’ve written previously to Beware of False Dichotomies.  I’m convinced that security v. usability is ultimately a false dichotomy and the person or company who proves this will enjoy tremendous business opportunity.  You should not need to be a hacker to be able to have confidence that your browsing or communication will remain private.  We can fix the privacy problems we face.

Why Read “Lean In”

I was fortunate last week to spend four straight days of focus on women in business and education.  One of the highlights was getting to hear Sheryl Sandberg talk about “Lean In.”  I had just finished reading the book a couple of weeks ago – most of the material in her talk came straight out of the book but it was nice to hear it directly.

My takeaway is this – the messages in the book are truly important for both women and men to hear.  They are well researched and presented with personal examples which makes the book enjoyable to read.

The messages that I found most significant that I wanted to reiterate are these:

1. Be cognizant of the negative images presented of working mothers in the media.  After all, it’s not a very interesting story to talk about how people are functioning well.  The vast majority of working mothers are portrayed negatively – either as having no personal life or as “always harried and guilt ridden think Sarah Jessica Parker in I Don’t Know how She Does It” (p.23).  Women are surrounded by headlines warning them that they can’t do it all, even though the data actually contradicts this – “Employed women reap rewards including greater financial security, more stable marriages, better health, and, in general, increased life satisfaction” (p.24).

Reminding ourselves that there is tremendous bias in this portrayal and noticing the role models who are thriving can help us aspire to the same.  As parents we can point them out to our children and remind our friends and colleagues. These societally driven negative perceptions will be self-fulfilling prophecies if we don’t guard against them.

2. Multiple research studies show that women underestimate themselves and society underestimates them.  When women underestimate themselves and when they attribute their success not to themselves but to others or luck (a related tendency) they, not surprisingly, do not aspire as high.  Our culture and the media confirmation perpetuates this.

Awareness of this self talk, boosting our female colleagues, friends and family and debunking unfair reviews by media and others are important to balance this tendency.  Keeping these biases in mind, women can ask themselves are they not applying for or accepting the promotion due to unsubstantiated insecurities?  Similarly, as managers we may need to seek out women and suggest they consider expanded roles, and certainly not hold it against them if they don’t apply as readily.

3.  Sandberg describes the success/likeability double standard that pervades our culture.  The research clearly shows that “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women” (p.40).  Women are intuitive enough to sense this double standard and either consciously or unconsciously hold themselves back.  I’ve seen devastating consequences of this double standard for my women friends and colleagues – both socially and professionally.  It takes a very thick skin to put yourself in the fray and there is a price to pay.  This ties back to the underestimation point (above) as stated by to author Ken Auletta in the New Yorker “self-doubt becomes a form of self-defense”

This barrier is a tough one to get over – we are social creatures, we want and even need to be liked.  Unfortunately, for now, we need to learn to withstand this criticism – not ignore it  – it is ok to let the feelings exist, but by not dwelling we can prove this myth wrong and work to change it – once again, awareness is the most important step.

There are other important messages in the book and I applaud Sandberg for putting herself out there in writing the book and for including her many personal stories.  Of course, her resources gives her options and support that most working mothers don’t have.  I found myself chuckling that her description of her and her husband’s marital division of household labor doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of things like laundry and cleaning (p.111).  Nevertheless, the main points and issues she describes and certainly the ones above are true for women of all socioeconomic positions.

As far as the criticism and controversy that has surrounded the book, especially at first (I note that it has died down – I think now that more people have actually read it) I find it to be the height of irony.  Many of the critics are displaying exactly the kind of biases  Sandberg writes about – certainly the likeability one.  I see no reason not to assume her absolute best intentions.  We should applaud her for applying her talents and ambition and “Leaning In” to support and encourage women and families.

Is the Cloud the Next Facebook in the Hype Cycle?

My first post on Huffington Post as appeared at

We’ve all seen technologies that get overhyped — built up beyond the reality of their impact. Some have argued that Facebook was overhyped, hence the reason for its current stock troubles. Inversely, others argue that Facebook has become so embedded in our lives that it is still underestimated compared to its long-term impact. I’ve often been asked if the Cloud is heading down the same path, and whether we think Cloud technology is overhyped. After all, the buzz around industry giants like Apple’s iCloud and Google Drive entering the Cloud market is loud, and that feels risky to some.

To set the stage let me first define what the Cloud is. The Cloud is a relatively new term for what we have been doing increasingly since the invention of the Web — using Internet technologies to do things (such as run applications or store data) that we previously did locally on our PCs. Companies such as SugarSync and Dropbox are providing tools that accelerate this shift through technology that more easily lets you use the Cloud in your daily life. And now that large players such as Google, Apple and Microsoft are entering the fray and imitating the innovators, there is more discussion about whether the Cloud is reaching the height of the hype cycle.

However, the power the Cloud brings to our daily life is actually quite understated. Yes, the excitement is great — but the reality is even greater. What we are seeing is the intersection and synergy of societal trends magnified by technological forces that, in a virtuous cycle, enhance those societal trends.

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