Problem closure in privacy

While reading this article earlier today, I came upon the term ‘problem closure’ which has been defined by sociologist to mean “the situation when a specific definition of a problem is used to frame subsequent study of the problem’s causes and consequences in ways that preclude alternative conceptualizations of the problem.” This is something that I see time and time again in discussions on privacy.

Perhaps the most prominent example is the refrain “I have nothing to hide” in response to concerns about surveillance. The answer defines the problem, suggesting that the only issue with surveillance is for those engaged in nefarious acts who need to conceal those acts. It precludes other issues of surveillance. This has been addressed at length by Law Professor Daniel Solove and his discussion of the topic can be found here.

More to practical applications of privacy, I find that many organizations suffer from problem closure in their business models and system implementations. This makes it difficult to add in privacy controls when the starting point is a system that is antithetical to privacy or precludes it. One of the many reasons for this is that companies view their raison d’être as their particular solution not solving the problem they originally set out to solve.  This can best be illustrated by example. Ask many up and coming firms in the online advertising space and they are in the business of ‘targeted behavioral marketing.’ Really, they are in the business of effective online advertising but they’ve defined their company by the one solution they currently offer. This attitude not only is bad for privacy it is bad for the business. The ability to adapt and change to changing customer needs and market conditions is the hallmark of a strong enterprise. Those that are stuck in an unadaptable business model have already sealed their eventual fate. This is especially true in industries driven by technology.

Are you in the business of providing gas powered automobiles or are you in the business of providing transportation solutions?

Are you in the business of printing newpapers or providing news?

Are you in the telephone business or the communications business?

Waste management is a good example of a company which adapted to changing social mores about waste. Originally a trash hauling and dumping company, they have readily adapted their business model to recycling.

When trying to escape the “problem closure” problem, organizations need to look not at the solution they are currently implementing to define them but the problem they are solving for their customers. Once they do that, they can open up their eyes to potential solutions that solve the problem for their customers AND have privacy as a core feature.

This problem is most prevalent, IMHO, in smaller companies who have bet their socks on a particular solution they’ve invented. They don’t have the luxury of having an existing customer base and the ability to explore alternative solutions.

It is a problem I deal with often in trying to convince companies that privacy must be built in. You can’t build the solution and then come back and worry about privacy. It has to be part of the solution building process.