Old girlfriends and new privacy

17:00, Sep 14 2012

Old girlfriends are guaranteed to get blokes in trouble. Something must hard-wired into men's brains to make them insatiably curious to find out whatever happened to that first girl they pashed behind the bike sheds.

In my case it was the straw that broke the camel's back after I had done my level best to kill my Facebook account. Having gotten sick of the social network's laissez faire approach to privacy and increasingly worried about how they were using my data, I decided to pull the plug and deactivate my account.

Easy enough you'd hope, but no. To do this requires a vast amount of perseverance to find the relevant part of the site, and then patience to dive through rows of hoops. But finally it was done, and my soul felt the cleaner for it. But not for long.

A week later I started to get Facebook friend requests even though my account was deactivated. Within 10 days I had 30 requests - more than I had with an active Facebook account. But I held firm. Facebook stepped it up gear and standing pounding me with friend requests from movers and shakers, high fliers that scarcely knew me but obviously had had me suggested to them by Facebook. Again I held firm. They couldn't fool me.

Then Facebook played the killer card - it sent me a friend request from the first girl I dated when I was 15 in Timaru. Foolishly I clicked on the link in the email that said "view all requests". Whamo. Seconds later I got an email welcoming me back to Facebook, strange given as far as I was aware my account was still deactivated. It felt sneaky, underhanded and cold blooded. But let's face it I was a mug to think otherwise.

On one hand you have to admire the way they served up my first girlfriend as bait, on the other their execution bordered on the chilling - how did they know I'd dated her?

Meanwhile the misleading nature of what it means to "deactivate" your Facebook account gives a person ethical pause.

In the digital world it's becoming increasingly clear that consumer are not customers of global web giants like Facebook, but rather a product generating data for the giants to sell for billions.

So if you threaten to strangle that data they've got a billion reasons to get it flowing again, even more so when their shareprice has halved in less than four months. It's an ironic change of paradigm that the public are still getting their heads around.

This paradigm shift was one of the motivators for the Commission's review of the Privacy Act that was kicked off over five years ago - ensuring that New Zealanders number one defence against companies misusing individual's private information was optimised for the digital age.

The fourth and final part of the review was tabled in July 2012. Two key themes were ensuring the Privacy Commissioner was well-equipped to champion privacy in a digital age, and that by delivering effective privacy protection citizens and business would continue to trust the Government. After a submission process, Justice Minister Judith Collins confirmed that the old Act would be repealed and replaced with one along the lines recommended by the Law Commission, with final details to be confirmed by 30 September.

That leaves just over two weeks for the Justice Ministry to provide its blueprint for the future of privacy in Godzone. And in a country that's just seen some of biggest privacy bloopers ever, courtesy of ACC, it's never been more needed. The need here isn't just to safeguard public good and consumer protection, it's also to provide business with the surety it needs to deliver economic growth.

One example of this is meeting the European Union's data protection adequacy standards. The EU will not permit personal data to flow outside the EU for processing unless it's subject to an 'adequate standard of data protection'. Pending getting a final OK the EU's Article 31 Committee NZ will become the fifth country outside Europe to obtain "adequacy" and with it a huge competitive advantage for local data processing companies.

More broadly, privacy and trustworthiness are key requirements for the growth of eCommerce, business to consumer eCommerce in particular. When you decide to buy something online, that decision is based on your trust in the provider. And in a country where, according the 2012 UMR study, 81 per cent of people are concerned about the security of personal information on the net, strong privacy law is a keystone to such trust.

The Law Commission spent five years on the Privacy Act Review, a process that involved prolonged consultation with business as well as special interest groups. The Justice Ministry has now had over a year to firm up its final proposals, but it's a down to the wire finish.

Let's hope it doesn't disappoint. And if Facebook offers you up an old squeeze, try to be a bit smarter than me.

Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is a professional director, eCommerce manager and author. He hopes his wife doesn't read his columns.