Sriram Viswanathan

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Privacy - 5 - Privacy Policies And You

Goal of a privacy policy


Protect consumer’s interests and in a digital world, their data and identity form mis-use.


Protect companies from consumers suing them - written by a lawyer for a lawyer.

Readability of a privacy policy

This nytimes article is the best research and visualization of how readable are privacy policies of some of the services we use on a day to day basis. For e.g. to read Facebook’s privacy policy, you need to be college level educated. To read Airbnb’s privacy policy, you need some professional training after your college degree.

This begs the question - if not every user of this service is college educated or studying in a college (which is a fair assumption), then do these users know what they are agreeing to even if they read it ? Who is going to help them understand it ?

Example of hidden/shadow data sorcery

Facebook and Google are the Sarumans when it comes to using this shadow sorcery.

Remember the last creepy ad you saw ? - welcome to the party.

For e.g. if you are on Facebook, you could go to this link to see which advertising companies your data is being shared with, “advertisers you’ve interacted with”.

Did you really agree to share your data with these people ? Is this mentioned in the privacy policy or data policy ? Probably. Would you understand it even if you read it ? Probably not.

Quoting this excellent article -

"Not even the marketing people and data scientists completely understand 
 how the algorithmic distribution of their content works."

What can be done ?

We have to be optimistic towards how the privacy policies can be made more accessible. For e.g. one suggestion from the nytimes article shared above is -

"Something as simple as a list of companies that might purchase and use 
 your personal information could go a long way towards setting a new bar 
 for privacy-conscious behavior."

I, for one, have started reading the privacy policies, at least a cursory glance for super vague words which might give me an idea about weighing the use of the service vs an alternative.