Living Out Loud -- Should We All Be More "Open?": Corporate Secrecy and Personal Privacy are Opposites (Part 7 of 7)

The ubiquity of digital gadgets and sensors, the pervasiveness of networks and the benefits of sharing very personal information through social media have led some to argue that privacy as a social norm is changing and becoming an outmoded concept. In a seven-part series Don Tapscott questions this view arguing that we each need a personal privacy strategy. This post is Part Seven of that series. For previous articles go here.

The issue of personal information has been muddled with the opportunity for corporations to become more transparent. To be sure, as I wrote almost a decade ago in the book The Naked Corporation (co-author David Ticoll), firms can gain huge benefits from sharing pertinent information with customers, employees and other stakeholders. Corporate secrecy is highly over-rated and increasingly companies will become more open in many areas -- simply to perform better.

We argued in the book that largely because of the arrival of the Internet, transparency is a powerful new force in business. People everywhere have at their fingertips the most powerful tool ever for finding out what's really going on and informing others. Customers can evaluate the worth of products and services at levels not possible before. Employees share formerly secret information about corporate strategy, management and challenges. To collaborate effectively, companies and their business partners have no choice but to share intimate knowledge. Powerful institutional investors are developing x-ray vision. Finally, in a world of instant communications, whistleblowers, inquisitive media, and Googling, citizens and communities routinely put firms under the microscope.

Overall this is a positive development. Whether you're a government or company, when you're increasingly naked, fitness is no longer optional. Transparency will force you to get buff. And if you are fit, you can open the kimono about your organization and when you do good things can happen. Appropriate transparency drops transaction and collaboration costs. It increases loyalty and trust. It speeds up the metabolism of collaboration and overall contributes to organizational performance.

This is not to say that companies should share all their secrets. There are many areas where secrecy pays off, from your business strategy to your product release plans. But increasingly there are many areas where companies can "undress for success."

However, the advocates of personal openness err in thinking the same principles should apply to individuals. Corporations are fundamentally different from persons. Corporations are legal entities that society allows to be created and tasks them to achieve certain societal objectives. Corporations benefit enormously from the privilege of limited liability that society extends to them. As such they have obligations to us, including being appropriately transparent.

Individuals have no such obligations. We abhor institutions that are secretive. But we have and should continue to respect individuals who are "very private persons."

Yes, when companies become transparent they also may find themselves releasing personal information like the compensation levels of corporate management. But senior executives control the institution and as such are not simply private individuals. In their corporate capacity they have a social obligation to reveal some personal information. This goes with the job, as it should.

Conversely they have an obligation to fiercely protect the privacy of their employees, customers and other stakeholders. But unfortunately the debate about personal "openness" has obscured and muddled these important differences.

As the new movement for "personal openness" grows there is a bizarre new danger that people who are "private" become stigmatized. "We know nothing about her vacation location." "He refuses to publish his DNA sequencing." "What are they hiding?"

Personally, when it comes to each of us as individuals, I think we all need a balance between the public and private. Just as the complete loner and hermit lifestyle is not optimal (we all need and benefit from human interaction and relationships) so being a completely public person undermines one essence of what it is to be human -- to be private, reserved and discreet.

Develop and implement your own personal privacy strategy. When you share consider the benefits. But realize that withholding most information about you is in your interests: there are many "bad actors" who would misuse it. Privacy is important to the formation and maintenance of human relationships, reputation trust and even "the self" and its presentation in everyday life. Society lacks the laws and norms to protect you from companies being invasive or manipulative. And don't assume governments are benevolent: we may harmed in absentia by unknown public and private bureaucracies having access to our personal data -- perhaps the targets of injurious decisions and discrimination and we will never really know what or why.

Anonymous communications have an important place in our political and social discourse. The Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that "The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the right to anonymous free speech is protected by the First Amendment." A frequently cited 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission reads:

Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical minority views . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation says that it has challenged, through the courts and legislature, many efforts to impede anonymous communication. It has also contributed funding to Tor, which offers free software and an open network to prevent anyone you don't want from seeing your location or browsing habits. Try it at no cost, and you will be stunned as to how many groups monitor your surfing activity.

Using Tor is one of more than a dozen simple steps a person can take to help maintain privacy or confidentiality. In an excellent recent article in the New York Times, Kate Murphy gives detailed directions on "How to Muddy Your Tracks on the Internet." It's worth taking the time to read.

My bottom line? By all means, be as open as you want but realize that with openness can come vulnerabilities, especially for your children. And as the expression goes "Discretion is the better part of valor" meaning that it makes sense to be careful in the face of unintended consequences and risks.

Don Tapscott is the author of 14 books about technology in business and society, most recently with Anthony D. Williams "Macrowikinomics." He discusses these ideas on twitter @dtapscott