Living in a hyper-connected world where we can shop, bank, read the news and communicate with each other online, it’s hard to remember a time before the internet, before smartphones and apps tracked everything from our sleep patterns to food habits; before Google and the ability to look up anything or anyone in a nanosecond. While there’s no doubt that increasingly advanced digital technology has made life infinitely easier, equally, nothing has altered our notion of modern day privacy more – or posed a greater threat to it. Privacy, of course, is inextricably linked to security, which is one of the key factors identified by Quintet Private Bank as being essential for a Richer Life.
‘What’s interesting is that, in the early stages of technology, we assumed that a lot of things that were private in the real world were also private online,’ explains Rahaf Harfoush, digital anthropologist and executive director of Red Thread, a think tank that works at the intersections of technology, culture and leadership. ‘When online communication first began, there weren’t predictive analytics. So, even if a website did have access to information about you, it was quite limited. Where it gets tricky, is that technology now has the capability to know things that we didn’t actively volunteer.’
For instance, Rahaf suggests that someone purchasing unscented hand lotion, cotton swabs and a cluster of other objects could triangulate to mean that they are pregnant. ‘The reach of tech has expanded but many people still think they’re dealing with the same basic level of access to information.’
The problem, says Magnus Boyd, a partner at privacy law firm specialist Schillings, is the aggregation process that we never see. ‘Superficially, each tiny piece of information appears anodyne – the fact that Amazon has my date of birth, Land Registry has my address and Ocado knows my love for Jaffa Cakes, say – but put them together and it creates a detailed picture. And it might not be the image that you want to project to the world.’
Add to that social networks purchasing data to get a closer look at our political affiliations, religious beliefs, brand preferences, marriage status, and surveillance under the guise of security; there’s a sense that our freedom is slowly being eroded while we sit back unwittingly and watch. ‘The protection of privacy underpins the freedom of expression which is vital to a free and democratic society,’ continues Magnus. ‘The two are intrinsically linked: if reputation is what someone thinks of you, then privacy is what they know about you. People become defined by the information out there, and don’t always have the room to change direction or evolve.’
Rahaf believes that the single biggest invention that has challenged our idea of privacy is the smartphone and the rise in tracking. ‘Previously technology could see what people were doing in the digital space when they logged on, but now most people have their phones on them all the time; so the places we go and our routines are tracked in the real world.’ On the surface this might just seem like a technology issue, but it’s about our digital habits too, says Rahaf. ‘People think because it’s a personal phone with a password it's private, but they’re not considering who makes the free apps we download and what is happening to the data.’
However, there are small indications that, in some respects, the tide is turning. Some apps are now using the fact that they only store data on phones as a selling point and Apple is set to introduce a new ‘App Tracking Transparency’ feature, allowing users to block advertisers tracking them across applications. ‘As consumers get smarter and interest in privacy grows, what’s interesting from a cultural perspective is how companies begin to take note. If you look at Apple, a few years ago it wasn’t aligning itself as a privacy brand.’
Of course, there’s the age-old argument that if someone doesn’t have anything to hide, then surely having information about them out there online doesn’t matter. On the contrary, explains Magnus. ‘For me, privacy is linked to issues of autonomy and dignity. I believe that it’s a fundamental human right. While you might not harbour state secrets, you may well hold information that would cause shame or embarrassment if it got into the public domain. We all carry around confidential knowledge about ourselves and others that we might not want our friends or family to know, let alone business competitors.'
So, what can we do to prevent our personal information being available in such a digital world? ‘Our absolute best defence is to start asking questions and find out what’s happening to the data,’ says Rahaf. ‘We need to stop making it easy for companies to mine our information.’ Magnus agrees. ‘It might sound trite, but awareness is everything. We’ve got to be thinking pre-emptively about what information to put into the public domain and controlling the flow, as well as cleaning up whatever is out there. In the era of big data, the collection of vast sets of information that can subsequently be hacked and sold exposes us all to fraud and identity theft. Personal privacy planning is the only way that we can protect ourselves and our families.’
Magnus has dubbed his approach to planning 'Privacy by Design', a phrase first coined by the Canadian Information Commission that was applied to designing systems and products with privacy in mind. ‘Essentially, people need to think of privacy as a default setting,’ he says. First off, he begins with an audit to help clients map potential ‘privacy stress points’ – whether digital, commercial, physical or financial. He then undertakes an assessment, evaluating how likely it is that privacy can be breached and putting in place simple measures to stop it.
‘Often there is reluctance in people to take control of their privacy and, for a long time, I couldn’t understand where it came from,’ says Magnus who, at Schillings, works with cyber and information-security specialists, risk advisors and intelligence gatherers to offer a 360-service. ‘Now, I think it’s a combination of naivety, fear – people don’t want to go digging into what’s out there for fear of what they might find – and fatalism. Lots of people shrug their shoulders and say that a lack of privacy is the price we pay for living in this connected world and there’s nothing they can do.’ Once clients start the process though, the overwhelming reaction is one of relief. ‘There’s no more metaphorical looking over their shoulder. What we’re really doing is giving people control and autonomy again.’
Magnus uses the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) - which applies to any information that is historic, and therefore inaccurate - to try and get it removed from the public space. He also contextualises accurate information. ‘Where you can’t remove information, such as having an artwork listed on the public registry of assets, then I would advise putting it into a narrative. Clients can think about how to tell an accurate story of their decisions based on the information. If a family has a corporate business, then we might include on its website a section about the history of the company and how profits have been used to collect art.’
Other pre-emptive action Magnus advises could include planning around buying or renovating a property; such as asking contractors to sign non-disclosures, doing bug sweeps and social media monitoring of staff. Another example he gives is the rush on social media of people photographing children on their first day of school which happened a few years ago. ‘Lots of nannies and au pairs were doing it not realising that they were giving away sensitive, private information,’ he recalls. ‘It’s not about seeking retribution if someone breaches privacy, but instead making them aware of it.’
Rahaf – for whom a Richer Life is one of intentionality – suggests employing some basic ‘digital hygiene practices’ on a regular basis including: reviewing app permissions, using a password manager and looking at websites such as Terms of Service Didn’t Read, which sums up the terms of service for various companies. ‘Part of being an adult is doing chores like paying our bills and we need to expand that to include proper cyber security. We need to be active participants in our privacy and take advantage of those hard to find opt out features,’ she says.
Let’s be clear, running away from all things digital isn’t the answer. In fact, it can actually do more harm than good. ‘One of the things that we advise clients as part of 'Privacy by Design' is to create an account with Twitter and Facebook and buy up the domains with their name. If there’s nothing about you out there, it creates a vacuum and inaccurate material rushes in to fill it. If you control the information, you control your privacy,’ says Magnus. ‘A Richer Life is a freer life. Ultimately freedom is about choice, and the more privacy you have, the more choice you have.’