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Don’t be a dick

In a recent post on device identifiers, I wrote a guideline that I’ve previously invoked when it comes to sharing user data. Here is, in both more succinct and complete form than in the above-linked post, the Don’t Be A Dick Guide to Data Privacy:

  • The only things you are entitled to know are those things that the user told you.
  • The only things you are entitled to share are those things that the user permitted you to share.
  • The only entities with which you may share are those entities with which the user permitted you to share.
  • The only reason for sharing a user’s things is that the user wants to do something that requires sharing those things.

It’s simple, which makes for a good user experience. It’s explicit, which means culturally-situated ideas of acceptable implicit sharing do not muddy the issue.

It’s also general. One problem I’ve seen with privacy discussions is that different people have specific ideas of what the absolutely biggest privacy issue that must be solved now is. For many people, it’s location: they don’t like the idea that an organisation (public or private) can see where they are at any time. For others, it’s unique identifiers that would allow an entity to form an aggregate view of their data across multiple functions. For others, it’s conversations they have with their boss, mistress, whistle-blower or others.

Because the DBADG mentions none of these, it covers all of these. And more. Who knows what sensors and capabilities will exist in future smartphone kit? They might use mesh networks that can accurately position users in a crowd with respect to other members. They could include automatic person recognition to alert when your friends are nearby. A handset might include a blood sugar monitor. The fact is that by not stopping to cover any particular form of data, the above guideline covers all of these and any others that I didn’t think of.

There’s one thing it doesn’t address: just because a user wants to share something, should the app allow it? This is particularly a question that makers of apps for children should ask themselves. Children (and everybody else) deserve the default-private treatment of their data that the DBADG promotes. However, children also deserve impartial guidance on what it is a good or a bad idea to share with the interwebs at large, and that should be baked into the app experience. “Please check with a responsible adult before pressing this button” does not cut it: just don’t give them the button.