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Why opposing privacy reform is now dinosaur thinking

future ahead conceptBy Simon Davies

If anyone wants proof of the relevance of privacy, they need only reflect on the fact that over the past three years, almost every government and corporation on earth has been repeatedly forced to address the issue.

Wherever you turn – the WTO, WEF, IMF, the UN, the ILO or even Bilderberg – privacy has become an enduring topic. And, crucially, the conversation is slowly shifting from deflection to engagement.

Wherever you turn – the WTO, WEF, IMF, the UN, the ILO or even Bilderberg – privacy has become an enduring topic. And, crucially, the conversation is slowly shifting from deflection to engagement.

This is a fascinating process which carries a sense of the inevitable. If you map the ascendancy and entrenchment of many issues – the environment, slavery, anti-discrimination, child exploitation by corporations – you can see the current privacy trends mirrored almost precisely.

That’s not the same as saying everyone is galvanized by a lust to strengthen privacy rights. It merely signals that – like the environment or Corporate Social Responsibility – smart leaders know the issue isn’t going to go away.

This shift isn’t exclusively a response to the Snowden revelations – though that chapter has accelerated the trend. Leaders have watched carefully as media scandals have unfurled over privacy issues. They’ve seen shares crash, corporations burn and CEO’s fall on their sword. And, by degrees, privacy is being drawn not just into corporate risk models, but also into ethical frameworks.

Where reputation is the only game in town, privacy has emerged as a genuine threat. Importantly, if current trends hold, it’s only a matter of time before privacy is broadly viewed as an opportunity rather than a liability.

This wasn’t always the case. There was a time – not so long ago – when organisations viewed privacy almost exclusively through the prism of legal compliance. If the legal department didn’t flag a privacy issue as a compliance risk, there was little or no hope of change. The idea that brand reputation may suffer or people may change their vote – or their shopping preferences – on the basis of privacy concerns, was until recently an aberrant notion.

To better understand this shift it may be useful to consider the changed dynamics of privacy campaigners and advocates – those individuals who have been responsible to no small extent for the transformation.

Scroll back ten or fifteen years. Then, privacy advocates suffered continuous, ad hominem attacks on their integrity. From the earliest days of the privacy movement, advocates were routinely characterized as extremist, self-interested, bleeding-heart liberals who were out of touch with reality. This was the default mindset of most powerful institutions.

This polemic has shifted. I’m not suggesting that antagonism toward privacy has disappeared – far from it. But governments and corporations are no longer inclined to instinctively marginalize privacy issues. Indeed privacy is now a core risk issue for many sectors and has moved from mere legal compliance to an unstable core threat.

Where reputation is the only game in town, privacy has emerged as a genuine threat. Importantly, if current trends hold, it’s only a matter of time before privacy is broadly viewed as an opportunity rather than a liability.

It wasn’t so long ago – indeed as recently as a decade – that legal professionals were institutionally suspicious about the policy competence of privacy campaigners, while many in the IT sector regarded almost anyone in the privacy sphere as technologically naïve. Such positions are no longer sustainable.

Having said that, there are still many dinosaurs out there who harbor an anti-privacy pathology. Increasingly however, they are being pushed into the margins. Their “shoot the messenger” philosophy no longer resonates with the emerging narrative of governments and corporations.

To provide a brief example, it’s now hard to imagine that in the 1990s, the handful of campaigners working to expose the NSA and GCHQ mass surveillance programs were generally looked on by mainstream opinion-makers as tinfoil hat-wearing paranoiacs. We just kind of accepted the slur, just as we accepted the ridicule from authorities that followed our early-warning campaigns against CCTV, government-issued identity, crypto controls or data retention.

It’s equally hard to believe that as recently as 2004, those of us who warned about the dangers of Google’s ascendancy were mauled and humiliated by countless techies who had become blind to the risks of global data capture.

Such extreme responses are now vanishing as privacy concerns move from the fringe to the mainstream.

This activity indicates a growing maturity and confidence within the privacy community – an evolutionary step that no-one in power can afford to ignore.

Contrary to the image frequently promoted by its antagonists, the field is populated by highly informed and well-connected experts who have built a foundation of evidence for privacy campaigning. Indeed the privacy community (perhaps more accurately described as a network of networks) rigorously polices itself on matters of factual accuracy. There’s a hive awareness that assertions must be solid if the credibility of advocacy is to be maintained.

These are early days, but there’s every indication that privacy has achieved a critical mass that will propel the issue indefinitely. The dinosaurs will continue to resist this shift, but in time they will become more isolated and exposed.