Privacy: Now a Mainstream Issue

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Privacy is just now becoming a mainstream issue with the general public and we at the Identity Theft Resource Center are witnessing this changing tide firsthand. At our call center, we have concerned people calling in every day with questions about identity theft and privacy issues. The interesting thing we have noted is that these individuals have not experienced a specific trigger prompting them to investigate the issue further. Instead, it is a mainstreamed heightened awareness of identity theft and privacy issues that is prompting people to educate themselves on the topic.

While we don’t have any long-term studies to support and prove this new trend, we can see, anecdotally, that consumers are more curious about how privacy issues will affect them, even when they are not victims of identity theft or a data breach.

Here is our take on how privacy went from fringe to mainstream.

Privacy In the Fringe

Privacy has been a topic with industry experts for years as there have been numerous organizations, such as the ITRC and PRIVATE WiFi, that have taken privacy issues seriously and have fought to protect and inform consumers. Law firms have been establishing privacy departments and taking negligent businesses to court over privacy violations. Privacy is even a right enshrined in the California Constitution. It’s often part of our national conversation and yet, for a long time, there was an association of paranoia with this topic that somewhat delegitimized the issue in the general public’s perception.

The general population still seemed to think, in the back of their minds, that people who strongly advocated for privacy rights were obsessive, or overly worried about nothing. Individuals who were very concerned about their privacy and took steps to protect their identities seemed to be seen as shady individuals who had something to hide and as such didn’t want their identities to be revealed. Anonymity was frowned upon.

Sure, the run of the mill consumer would acknowledge that services offering anonymous communication, transactions or web browsing had value, but only to certain individuals who had a specific need for them. After all, if someone doesn’t have anything to hide, why take precautions to protect your identity? The general consensus was that those privacy services were for people up to no good like cheaters, criminals and others conducting nefarious activities. Therefore, privacy services were only needed if you had something to hide. And if you didn’t have anything to hide and still used privacy services, then you were likely to be seen as paranoid and unreasonable.

Privacy in the Forefront

The tides are now shifting. More and more people that we talk to every day are expressing their concern for their privacy, even when they are not engaged in any criminal or immoral conduct – just normal people. The recent revelations about the NSA and the intense public scrutiny around high profile data breaches have brought privacy to the forefront of the general public’s mind, forcing people to rethink their stance on privacy. In a sense, it has legitimized privacy as a common concern and the services that offer anonymity and privacy.

It used to be that the vast majority of non-victim callers into the ITRC call center had suffered or witnessed some kind of personal information exposure that had prompted them to be concerned about their level of risk. For example, a close friend or family member had become a victim of identity theft, and then the person would become concerned for themselves and turn to the ITRC for more information. Or they had lost a laptop or important paperwork and were subsequently alerted to their vulnerability to identity theft through a police officer or insurance agent or carrier. Some event affecting the privacy of the consumer triggered their awareness and created a concern where none existed beforehand, but this is no longer the case. All types are now calling us to learn more about protecting their privacy and identity, whether they have specific concerns or they are just seeking general information.

It is unfortunate that it has taken a series of harmful revelations and events to bring about this change in perception and level of awareness; however, we acknowledge that it is due. The ITRC plans to explore this phenomenon further in 2014.

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Eva Velasquez

Eva Velasquez is the President/CEO at the Identity Theft Resource Center, a non-profit organization which serves victims of identity theft. Velasquez previously served as the Vice President of Operations for the San Diego Better Business Bureau and spent 21 years at the San Diego District Attorney’s Office. Eva has a passion for consumer protection and privacy issues and is constantly striving to educate the public about these important topics. She is recognized as a nationwide expert on identity theft and has recently been featured on the Ricki Lake show and MORE magazine, as well as numerous other outlets.