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How Did Data Privacy Day Go From #PrivacyAware to #PrivacyScare?

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Today is Data Privacy Day, an annual reminder to all of us to check our digital zippers. But while Data Privacy Day was originally devoted to educating consumers about how to protect their data online, in recent years it has become better known for the privacy activists who participate in such rowdy traditions as midnight Twitter rants and feats of endurance like “Who can sound the shrillest?” The kids might even get swept up in the festivities and help their parents build tin-foil hats.

Some years back privacy activists realized that Data Privacy Day was a perfect opportunity to further peddle their stories of a coming digital apocalypse brought about by Big Brother and Big Data. And faster than you can say “fundraising bonanza,” Data Privacy Day morphed from an attempt to improve people’s cyber hygiene to the activist-fueled orgy of fear, where everyone is invited and tips are appreciated.

Unfortunately, many people have fallen victim to these tales of doom.  While we’ve seen this before—the great grandparents of today’s privacy activists were decrying Kodak for inventing the portable camera—privacy activism has reached new heights and now dominates many discussions. These privacy claims are often exaggerated to raise consumer fears, even where no actual consumer harm exists. The result is that policymakers become attuned to privacy concerns and attempt to derail or delay important technological projects, from building medical research databases to cure cancer to deploying body cameras to increase police accountability to using student performance data to improve schools.

This is a real loss for everyone.

So this year, let’s ignore the attempts to instill fear into the hearts and minds of consumers and instead get back to the true meaning of Data Privacy Day. So change your passwords, check your credit report, and download all those software updates you’ve been putting off. And let’s remember that the benefits of new technologies and innovation are the true cause for celebration.

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About the author

Daniel Castro is vice president at ITIF. His research interests include health IT, data privacy, e-commerce, e-government, electronic voting, information security, and accessibility. Previously, Castro worked as an IT analyst at the Government Accountability Office where he audited IT security and management controls at various government agencies. He has a B.S. in foreign service from Georgetown University and an M.S. in information security technology and management from Carnegie Mellon University.