This phrase or concept is said to be the spirit of ubuntu – not the Linux operating system, but the ubuntu philosophy found in Southern Africa coming from the Zulus. And while often used in reference to our humanity and how we treat others, I think it has insights into identity and privacy.

One of the challenges of identity and privacy occurs when we try to make them static or fixed; when we try to cease to allow them to be fluid. When we reflect on who we are today in comparison to how we’d answer that question 10 or 20 years ago, I’m sure the answer would be different (just ask Justin Trudeau). Some things remain the same (e.g. birthdate) while others change (e.g. interests, friends, family members, even gender perhaps). Our identity is shaped by those we hang out, spend time with, work with, etc. None of this will be surprising.

Privacy, as defined by Webster, is freedom from unauthorised intrusion or secret. There are facts about our lives which we want to keep secret or control who they are disclosed to. This becomes tricky with digital data.

GDPR defines personally identifiable data (PII) as “personal data’ means any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person (‘data subject’).” However, when so much of who we are and what identifies us are the people we spend time with and the places we visit; these networks, these social ties are clear identifiers and in many ways become PII. And yet, this type of information rarely is treated in this way.

Going further because “I am because you are”, my ‘privacy’ and my ‘identity’ depend on you and what you disclose to others. Police investigators know this as any good crime drama describes – investigators build a case about a person by talking to the community of people around the both the victim and perpetrator. The Bernie Sanders campaign knows this and tried to build a database of information by asking supporters to add details about family members, friends, colleagues, etc. into their database so they could target them with messages.

So as we move into the future, as we go more digital, we need nuanced approaches to identity, privacy, and many other concepts. We need to move away from simplistic thinking that says as long as we are stripping out the PII data from a dataset, we are protecting the vulnerable people. We are not and we need to acknowledge this, for then we might find better solutions.

The Privacy Dependencies work by Solon Barocas and Karen Levy and the work on Demographically Identifiable Information by Nathaniel Raymond are good places to start.

Photo by Duy Pham


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