A Cautionary Tale: Are You Clicking Your Privacy (or the Privacy of Others) Away?

October 1, 2014
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The big data privacy discussion is subtle, complex and complicated – and we each have a role to play. What’s yours going to be?


It was 9:53 AM. Sarah was racing against the clock: she wanted to finish a long overdue email to a Canadian colleague before her team’s weekly 10:00 AM meeting. Just as she clicked the ‘Send’ button, her manager, Mason, appeared outside her cubicle. 

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The big data privacy discussion is subtle, complex and complicated – and we each have a role to play. What’s yours going to be?


It was 9:53 AM. Sarah was racing against the clock: she wanted to finish a long overdue email to a Canadian colleague before her team’s weekly 10:00 AM meeting. Just as she clicked the ‘Send’ button, her manager, Mason, appeared outside her cubicle. 

“Are you headed to the meeting?” he asked her.

“Yep, I was just heading over.”

“Great. I’ll walk with you. I was wondering if you had time after the meeting to go talk with Angie in HR. I got a call from her this morning, and a situation has developed that she wants to talk to us about.”

“What’s going on?” Sarah asked.

“I don’t know. She wouldn’t tell me. She said she wanted to discuss it with the both of us at our earliest convenience.”

“Well, I hope everything’s okay,” Sarah replied, trying not to think too much about it.

It was 11:05 AM. Mason and Sarah sat down in the two chairs across from Angie in her office. “Thank you for meeting with me on such short notice,” Angie began. “I wanted to talk to you about the summer picnic your department had a week and a half ago.”

Sarah remembered the event well. People were still talking about it and sharing the fun video she and her husband had put together and posted on YouTube. Even though the company didn’t sponsor the picnic, it wasn’t uncommon for employees to get together on their own time and their own dime.

“Do you know Nick over in Tech Support?” Angie asked.

“I know of him, but we’ve never met officially,” Sarah replied, and then she started smiling. “But we did get some great clips of him in the video we put together. That boy certainly knows how to party and have a good time!”

Angie continued, “Well, it seems that Nick is in a little bit of trouble. Did you know that on his drive home with his family after the picnic that they got into an accident?”

“Oh, wow. No, I didn’t!” Mason exclaimed. “What happened?”

“From the reports, Nick was too drunk to drive. His blood alcohol level was 1.2. He’s now been charged with a DUI. And what made matters worse for him is that the police department found your video on YouTube. Those ‘fun’ clips you mentioned of Nick knowing how to party – well, the police seem to agree.”

“Was anyone hurt?” Sarah asked, still trying to process everything she was hearing.

“My understanding is that no one was seriously injured – just the cars. Thank goodness!” Angie replied.

“I feel so bad. I know it wasn’t my fault, but the video that I’ve been so proud of going viral has just complicated things for Nick. I wish there was something I could do,” Sarah said.

Angie looked at Sarah for a few seconds, and then asked, “Are you up for doing an experiment with me?” Sarah nodded. “Good. Do you have a feather pillow at home?”

“I do.”

“Bring it into work with you tomorrow and meet me back here at 9 AM tomorrow morning.” Sarah had no idea what was up, but she was curious.

It was 9:00 AM the next morning. Sarah walked into Angie’s office with her pillow.

“Good morning! Let’s go downstairs to the café, grab some coffee, and sit outside,” Angie said to Sarah. She then grabbed a pair of scissors out of her top drawer, and the two of them went downstairs.

After buying their coffees, they found a nice table to sit at outside. Angie handed Sarah the scissors. “I want you to cut open your pillow and pile all the feathers on the table.”

Sarah thought Angie was a bit nuts, but she did as she was told. With all the feathers now on the table, Angie started talking about the event again. Sarah tried to pay attention, but she was distracted by all the feathers blowing away off the table. After about 10 minutes, she looked around at the feather ‘storm’ that had hit the café. And the sidewalks. And the streets. “What a mess!” she thought to herself.

Angie then told Sarah to gather all the feathers and stuff them back into the pillow case. Sarah knew now that Angie was indeed nuts.

“What kind of experiment is this, anyway?” Sarah snapped back. “There’s no way I can get all the feathers back. They’re everywhere! Even if I could retrieve most of the feathers, the pillow will never be the same again.”

“That’s exactly right, Sarah. And so it is when we share information on the internet. We could be sharing our own stories, or our kids’ stories, or even a “harmless” video of employees having a good time. In today’s digital world,” Angie continued, “the lines between our professional and personal lives continue to blur. We need to be mindful of what we’re sharing. Because what happens on the internet stays on the internet. Forever.”

Sarah knew what she needed to do. What do you think she did?


Author’s note: This is my adapted version of the popular “Feathers in the Wind” tale attributed to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev. I presented this story during my big data privacy presentation at the Social Shake-Up conference on September 16, 2014.