Privacy means never having to say you’re sorry

For those of us who work with computers, the value of identifying ourselves to Web sites is increasingly obvious: no more retyping our name and address information, less need to memorize dozens of log-in passwords and paths to specific Web pages, less spam and fewer irrelevant banner ads.

But even those of us who appreciate the value of sharing some personal information with Web sites, and those who run them, are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the potential for abuse inherent in having information on our identities and preferences broadly available.

Outside the computer community, this potential has received considerable – and largely unfavourable – attention. Though many of the concerns raised by commentators are valid, the press’s scaremongering has led many to consider the Internet as great a threat to privacy as the government in George Orwell’s 1984. It’s hard to overcome such entrenched fears, particularly when they’re ill-informed. Relying on logic to overcome those perceptions ignores the fact that having our privacy violated is an emotional issue, not a logical one.

To safeguard a reputation for integrity, we’re going to have to spend considerable time understanding our audience’s concerns and implementing solutions that ease those concerns. This will require careful communication, to ensure they understand what we’re trying to achieve, and careful design, to ensure we actually accomplish what we’re trying to achieve. I won’t address the design issues, other than to emphasize that those who frame the privacy policies for your Web site must work closely with those who implement the policies to ensure correct implementation. There’s no easier way to lose your audience’s trust than to give the impression, whether real or perceived, that you say one thing and do something else entirely. For example, how can you reconcile the visitor’s desire to know what information you’ve collected on them with the fear that strangers could learn the same thing? With large or complex sites, the teamwork required to do the job right poses a sizeable challenge and many traps for the unwary.

To reassure your visitors, you’ll have to make it very clear just what information you’re collecting, explain how you plan to use that information for your mutual benefit, and offer visitors the chance to stop you from using the information.

For example, visitors should be able to “opt out” by not providing information that they consider confidential without impeding their ability to use your site efficiently. It should be easy to find your privacy policy on-line, and the policy itself must be clear and readily comprehensible to even naive visitors.

To meet these challenges, you’ll have to work with your audience to identify the privacy concerns that bother them most. Typical concerns involve sale of information to other companies without prior approval, use of contact information to send unsolicited and unwanted information, deposition of mysterious (and thus scary) “cookies” on their hard drives, and letting enemies or pranksters obtain compromising information.

Address each of these issues, but also spend some time on your competitors’ Web sites to identify any issues that you may have missed. Then test the policy with representative visitors to confirm that it’s really as clear and comprehensive as you believe.

It can be difficult to reconcile the conflicting needs for efficiency and customization with the potential for abuse created by storing the personal information that lets you provide this efficiency.

Sometimes, it may not even be fully possible. But often all you really need to do is work closely enough with your audience to establish a reputation for honest responsiveness to their needs. The credibility you gain can disarm many fears, and should make it easier for visitors to control their remaining fears. Privacy is less of an issue with people you trust, and establishing that trust must be your priority.

Hart (geoff-h@mtl.feric.ca) is a translator, technical writer, editor and a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication. He lives in Pointe-Claire, Que., where he works for a forestry research institute.