A Contextual Approach to Online Privacy – It’s all about ME




In my last blog (Privacy By Design – The Secret Inside the Internet) I wrote about how the very design of the Web allows us to extend it to support a contextual approach to privacy online. In this post we’ll talk about how you can enable it.

But first a little context (pun intended).

The Internet has introduced disruptions at an unprecedented scale and variety. In doing so it has created a “target rich information environment” that is on par with the Wild, Wild West of yesteryear.

Unfortunately what hasn’t kept up is our approach to Privacy. In fact if anything, it’s completely the opposite of private. Now it appears that everything is for sale. So the challenge becomes one of suitable constraints on the flow of my personal information. Unfortunately this is out of alignment with those companies whose profit comes from the unrestricted flow of my data.

So how do we align these seemingly opposing forces?

As humans when we interact we use situational controls to share our context – however up until now there’s been no easy way to add this level of control to the user on the Internet. In fact they’ve been missing entirely on the client side (the browser) – as we seem to be increasingly driven by algorithms on the server side.

Well lets look at the two constituents – Me (the client/browser) and the Enterprise (the Web server) that I interact with. What I want is:

  • Convenience
  • Privacy
  • Control

What the Enterprise wants is:

  • Control
  • Commerce ($$$)

So the commonality between the two is “Control”. To resolve this problem we have to introduce a control mechanism for the consumer that allows him/her to conveniently share their privacy settings with the Enterprise in a way that fosters “Trust”. Remember Trust drives commerce.

The control mechanism is a database that contains my “Me” data. The information (context) that I wish to “exchange” in return for increased levels of trust and a better experience. The database is then integrated into the browser via a plugin. Now all we have to do is use the secret discussed in the last post (headers) to add the data going to the Web server.

Now we have a convenient method to store my data on the device, and a way to easily control what gets shared with the Web server. 

What’s left? The transparency problem. (Or as Prof. Helen Nissenbaum puts it on her essay in “Protecting the Internet as a Public Commons” – the transparency paradox.)

  • Achieving transparency means conveying information handling practices in ways that are relevant and meaningful to the choices individuals must make. Transparency of textual meaning and transparency of practice conflict in all but rare instances

So how do you solve the Transparency Paradox?

You don’t.

It can’t be solved – so don’t go there. Even the Wild, Wild West eventually moved on and so will we. No matter what we say to the consumer their ability to determine the risk level from those documents is going to be different. So keep it simple and start establishing levels of Trust that we as humans do understand.

Then the control mechanism comes into play. As we establish more trust we can share more, and if that trust is abused we can remove trust. That’s what’s really been missing on the Web. The ability to turn off what I share vs. what we have now – without effecting the “User Experience”. If I turn off cookies now my experience come to a halt. Whereas if I’m sharing contextual data via headers the experience can be better or the same – but what it won’t be is worse than it is now.

So there you have it – use a database to store your Me data that you want to share. Have built in controls that allow you to enable or disable data that gets shared as the trust levels increase between you and the Enterprise Web site.

And it’s only been right in front of us for the last 30 years or so.


Posted in: #Choice, Identity, Personalization, Privacy, Quality of Experience