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Privacy: if you’ve got nothing to hide, why close your curtains?

19 October 2020

©Dongwei Su
Besides COVID-19, privacy is probably one of the hottest topics in our lives at the moment. Privacy is one of the main issues in our overarching theme: The New Intimacy. The New Intimacy examines how to strike a balance between issues like health & safety and our relationships with each other and the world around us.

Giving away your soul

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about how privacy is being eroded. In the Chinese city of Shenzhen, cameras with facial recognition software mean jaywalkers can have their image displayed on electronic billboards beside the road. Cambridge Analytica is suspected of using data it gleaned from Facebook to secretly influence democratic elections. In 2010, GameStation offered terms of service which included a clause asking to, ‘grant us a non-transferable option to your immortal soul, for now and for evermore.’ Approximately 7,500 users accepted this, presumably because they – like most of us – didn’t even bother to read the small print.

The positive side of privacy

In that respect, privacy often has the same negative connotation as, say, nuclear fission or genetic modification. Yet, like both those examples, it can also be a force for good. At DDW we take a positive and optimistic view of life. We therefore think it’s important to stimulate the debate about the role privacy in our lives, and to invite designers to explore alternative scenarios that, for example, focus on sharing, intimacy, and regaining control of our data. For that reason, at the end of 2019 we defined privacy as one of the key topics to explore in the coming three years. A programme based on this theme will be showcased at DDW 2020.

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Forgiving, not forgetting

As an example, the Utrecht-based agency SETUP developed a concept called .sorry(‘dot sorry’). Based on an old Dutch TV programme Het Spijt Me (I’m sorry), it examines whether we are prepared to forgive people for their past actions. The TV show was about family/love situations, whereas .Sorry is aimed at our relationship with social media companies like Facebook. In a setting made to resemble backstage at a TV studio, online visitors are invited to consider whether they accept any remorse that these tech giants have shown about what they’ve done – and continue to do – with people’s data.
This is very much in the context of ‘forgive but don’t forget.’ Accepting one of the many apologies made by representatives of, for example, Twitter, Google, Amazon and Facebook is not considered to be closure, but rather the starting point of a new conversation, in which companies are made aware of where they went wrong in the past, and how they should behave in the future. You can think of it as a collective cleansing ritual, in which designers come up with new ideas that create common ground.

Give me my data!

Bureau Moeilijke Dingen (Bureau of Difficult Things) took a different approach. It asked many different companies for a copy of the personal data that had been collected on its clients. The reactions were not always what you would expect. Sometimes it received an envelope with 20 pages of text. Or a USB stick personally delivered by car at a specified time of the day. This provocative exploration revealed how uncertain organisations can be when asked for something that they are obliged to share with you. It also inspired the bureau to develop Aeon, an app that reveals the tracks you have left online so you can delete, modify or add to your digital footprint

Why :i: like Green
© ©Studio Julia Jansen

Does Facebook really know me?

Why :i:like Green by Studio Julia Janssen examines the disparity between the identity we have in the physical world and the online one Facebook builds for each of its users using algorithms. Or, as she puts it, “Facebook thinks I like green. Let’s find out why – and play a game with what it knows about me.”

‘If you’re not paying for a product, you are the product’

These are just a few examples of the design explorations on privacy that we’ve commissioned for this year’s DDW. The idea is to trigger debate and reflection on how the collection of private data shapes our lives. The notion that ‘I’ve got nothing to hide, so why should I mind sharing my data?’ already feels outdated. As the recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma demonstrated, it’s not data itself that’s the problem; it’s how that data is being used to manipulate our responses, preferences and behaviour. The phrase ‘if you’re not paying for a product, you are the product’ should make us all sit up and take notice. 

Considering the human context

Our intention is to help designers get involved before decisions are made regarding privacy and data-gathering products and applications. This will help ensure issues like usability, experience and human context are considered, rather than the focus being only on technology or efficiency. The distrust shown by people from many different countries of their governments’ introduction of Covid-19 track-and-trace apps demonstrates how perception can adversely affect what, in theory, are necessary and powerful tools. Hopefully, by adding designers to the equation, innovations like that – and privacy in general – can be seen in a more positive light.

The New Intimacy: Privacy
Covid-19 has enveloped our entire social fabric and has exposed all wires and frayed edges. One of the most important human values, intimacy, is at stake now that physical contact is often no longer possible. How do designers reflect on this? How can they translate the value of intimacy in a creative and innovative way in their design? Privacy is one of the subthemes of the DDW20 theme The New Intimacy. Read the full text about The New Intimacy here.