Is sensitive personal information becoming desensitized?

With all the hype surrounding big data, it should come as no surprise that people are worried about how their data is used.

"How concerned are you about the unnecessary disclosure of personal information?" Source: Eurobarometer 359, p. 59.
“How concerned are you about the unnecessary disclosure of personal information?” Source: Eurobarometer 359, p. 59.

Some data points have always been part of the modern bureaucratic state (see Giddens, 1985, for example). These are usually referred to as objective data points, which indicate facts such as births, deaths, age and income. Many of these data points are simply necessary to run a well-functioning state apparatus.

The reason why smartphones and social media is changing our relation to personal data is that subjective data points, such as what people read, what they search for, who they secretly stalk on Facebook, are much easier to come by than before. What’s more, people readily submit information on themselves on social networks that used to be hidden deep under the surface. There is a huge gap between what data protection officials think is sensitive information and what’s actually happening.

Fore example, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office defines sensitive personal data as something which has information on a) the racial or ethnic origin of a person, b) his/her political opinions or religious beliefs, c) his/her sexual life, among other things.

Facebook sees your sexual preferences, religious beliefs and political views as “basic info”. Not even “details about you”, but “basic”; information which is, undeniably, potentially very sensitive in many parts of the world.

The gist is that while marketers and companies are hoping to gather more and more sensitive information on potential customers, they really, REALLY don’t want to have their customer databases defined as collections of “sensitive data”. Because when that happens, you are suddenly forced to follow strict rules regarding what you can do with the information. Funnily enough, the best way to avoid that is not by refraining from collecting sensitive information, but rather by claiming that the information you have gathered is not on “real, identifiable people” but just “profiles”.

Giddens, Anthony (1985): The Nation-State and Violence: Volume Two of a Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Eurobarometer survey 359 on data protection