Privacy and Public Spaces

One of the great things about traveling is the interesting folks you meet. That’s true not only in meetings and conferences and such, but also on the plane. I’ve had fascinating conversations many times with the people sitting next to me — sometimes about computer security, as when the director of consulting at Verisign and I spent hours talking during a long transatlantic flight. But often the conversations are on wide-ranging topics far removed from security.

In all those conversations that I can recall, there was always a balance between candor and a certain tacit agreement about the level of confidentiality each of us would bring to the discussion. We might talk about work, but not about products under development. We might talk about family, but only rarely exchange contact information. We might talk about hobbies and avocations, but not about new ideas for books (at least in my case). As Bruce Schneier writes in Liars and Outliers: “When we meet someone for the first time, we tend to cooperate….This is all contextual, of course, and we’re not stupid about it.” (p. 84) That is, we are willing to extend trust, but we also set limits to that trust.

Perhaps because I have been thinking so much about trust lately, it was especially surprising to have just the opposite experience last week on my way home from a conference in Ireland. The man next to me worked for a major European oil company and was traveling with colleagues sitting in the rows in front of and behind us. When I arrived to take my seat he was talking to his colleagues about the investment strategies in his company. He continued to talk to them as we taxied, took off and flew to Zürich, his topics ranging from competitive strategies to financial performance to critiques of individuals in his company. We’ve all heard people talking on their cell phones about things they probably don’t want everyone to know. But I’d never encountered anyone who did such non-stop broadcasting of so much sensitive information.

It was interesting to listen in, of course. Actually, I really didn’t have any choice. In fact, most of the people around us really didn’t have a choice, given how loudly he spoke. But it was disturbing, too, to hear so much privileged information revealed so carelessly in a public space. His colleagues spoke very softly, answering almost monosyllabically in what seemed an effort to discourage him. But he didn’t seem to care that the information he was divulging might be used against him or his company.

Just the day before, I’d been speaking at a public affairs forum in Dublin about responding to the changes in privacy regulation in the European Union. I’d urged that the attendees think about privacy and security not just in terms of technology, but in terms of a well-governed approach that also addresses processes and people. Here was a stark example of risky behavior in someone unconscious or uncaring of the risks of public spaces. Perhaps his trust in those of us around him was admirable. But he obviously compromised the trust that others put in him to keep information confidential.

Maybe there’s no way to change the behavior of this particular individual. But in a world in which the user is the perimeter, it’s always good to be reminded that privacy is personal, even in public spaces.

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