Monthly Archives: October 2009

It’s all in the asking

Bob Blakely is getting a lot of attention lately for this post about a report the he and Ian Glazer wrote on privacy. On the one hand I completely agree with him that privacy is a social rather than a technical issue (which is why I have never been that interested in concepts like the minimal disclosure tokens and identity oracles).

But I feel the Bob and Ian give too much emphasis the how your personal information is handled after it has been disclosed rather than the issue of not asking for it to be disclosed in the first place. In other words, no one can abuse private information if they don’t have it in the first place.

Obviously some information needs to be disclosed to drive the required social interactions. But today there is too much information being asked for and I feel that is also a serious violation of privacy. Let me give you an example, following Bob’s Dr’s office example. Suppose you take your child for a check up and the pediatrician asks your child:

Has your daddy ever slept with another man?

You would be appalled at that for several reasons. First, it not remotely relevant to your child’s check up, and second it’s none if his business. Even assuming the Dr would scrupulously keep secret the answer, he shouldn’t even ask the question. I think we can all agree on that. But what if he asks your child:

Is there a gun in your house?

Now how do you feel about that? How is that any different? This is not a hypothetical question either, but a regular screening question asked today by pediatricians across the country. The American Academy of Pediatrics has instructed your pediatrician to routinely screen for household gun ownership because some irresponsible people have left loaded guns where children could get them, and they feel your privacy as a parent has no value. Further they are instructed to ask your children, not you for this information.

And that is just one of many examples where we are asked to divulge personal information beyond what is needed for the social interaction. At the point of asking the privacy is already being violated regardless of what happens to that information later.