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The Geek Privacy Principle

Sunday, February 7th, 2010 (No comments yet)

You might have heard of the "need to know principle" used in movies and such (usually in a comedic way). Despite the mockery people assign to the phrase, it is not only quite valid, but a very good rule of thumb.

In the classic form, any decision to provide information to someone must pass the "need to know" test. If the person requesting information has no legitimate need for the information, you don't provide it.

People who, like me, who think Internet communication and collaboration is a great thing and that open and transparent government are vital to the health and continuation of our country usually think that need to know is the exact opposite of those ideals, when it fact, it is not.

The truth is that open government doesn't mean that people know EVERYTHING. They can't and shouldn't know everything that our police and courts know because if they did, enemies of our country could use them against us.

Similarly, people have been learning for a few years now the consequences of what happens when they post too much online or aren't careful with who they add to their friend's list on social networking sites. Getting embarrassed, fired, robbed, etc.

The Geek Privacy Principle

Need-to-know doesn't go far enough
The main problem is that need-to-know doesn't go far enough. It's not just a matter if they "need" to know the information, it's also about whether you want to give it.

Remember that privacy is the right to decide who knows what about you and when. It's your information and as long as you haven't performed criminal acts, you maintain that right. Therefore, even if someone has a need or right to know in some sense, you should first decide if there's any specific benefit to providing the information. Benefits usually fall into one of these categories:

To be reasonably social

The unwritten rules of social engagement are that you will typically show the same level of trust and intimacy with a friend as they show to you (with some room for margin).

You will be more open with friends and family with coworkers or acquaintances and you will also adjust the things you say based on where you happen to be at the moment (for example, most people who are cautious with their private information will be mindful of how loud they speak in restaurants or on the bus).

To obtain goods or services

If you want something delivered, you'll need to provide your address. If you want to take your kids to the doctor, you will have to provide name and insurance information.

Now to bring it together:

If there's no purpose or benefit to providing information, the only possible consequence is negative

Given these odds, wouldn't you agree that it's much smarter to keep things to yourself?

How to apply the principle

In social situations

In social settings, there may be many situations where someone asks you something you don't want to provide. A business interview, a neighbor, an old schoolmate you see one day in the grocery store; all of these might tread a little to far into your personal life.

If you learn to adopt the Geek Privacy Principle, you won't tell them any more than they need to know and certainly nothing that you're uncomfortable providing. To respond to a question that goes too far, try this:

  1. Ask, "Why do you want to know?", "What do you mean?", or "Why do you ask?". Doing so buys you a little time to think about whether you really want to answer or not, but it also gives them the chance to clarify. They may drop the subject right then realizing they went to far or they may not have meant what you thought at all.
  2. Once you have clearly determined that you do not want to answer, a simple way of handling it is to say "I prefer not to say", "That's a bit personal", or in a business situation "I don't believe that question is relevant to my work performance". It takes some guts to do this, but it's well worth learning.

For obtaining goods and services

  1. You receive a request for information. Ex. "What's your phone number?".
  2. Determine their need for the information by asking them why they want it. In this case, let's assume that the haircut place will remember the details of your cut so they can repeat it easily the next time.
  3. Decide if you benefit from the information request. For example, do you care if they remember what "numbers" they used for your haircut?
  4. Question the validity of the request. Ex. Must they have your phone number for that? Won't any number do? If so, now would be a good time to apply your privacy alias (explained later in this guide)
  5. In cases where it's not legal (when dealing with courts), not ethical, or not practical (to obtain healthcare with your insurance) to provide your alias information, your only option left is to decide to provide the information or walk away (but be willing to walk away when necessary).

In Summary

Always remember that the more information someone has about you the more creative and successful they can be if they ever decide to destroy you. The neighbor who hates your guts, the spurned ex girlfriend or boyfriend, the guy who you accidentally cut off on the highway.

And sometimes, you can't tell the difference between a regular person and a psycho killer which is why you should never, ever say "I've got nothing to hide…" (go to next section).

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