WDYT 8/19: Would a traffic light system for hardware and software make us smarter about privacy?

Christian Heise
3 min readAug 30, 2019
Aung Myat/Shutterstock.com

Traffic lights are universally understood. Even people who have never driven a motor vehicle understand that green means go, yellow means caution, and red means stop.

Would it be possible to adapt the traffic light system to the world of privacy? Could this simple model help all of us make better decisions?

How safe is your digital me?

It seems like almost every day there is another news report about a data breach, password leak or a story about abuse of personally identifying information.

The internet is now an integral part of our lives. But, how safe is our personal data? Do you know about the websites you use every day and what data they are collecting about you and what they do with all of the data? Do you understand what machines are doing with Personal data you stored in the cloud? Do you entirely understand how your internet connected TV is sharing data?

Almost every website and every internet connected device has a privacy policy. But, these read like legal documents or might be very technical. They are difficult to understand and seem sometimes to be written to protect the data collector more than to inform internet users about how their data will be used.

And even if companies care and built comprehensive tools and settings around privacy, if you are like the most users, you don’t even bother with privacy configurations and pages. You click whatever you have to click to get the content or service you want. Most of us don’t even understand enough about data collection and the potential use of data to make sense of any of the agreements we enter into each day.

Could a simple traffic light system indicating how personally identifying information is used revolutionize the way we think about our privacy?

Traffic light systems for food as a model

A study conducted at Stanford University showed how a simple traffic light system helped people make better food decisions.

Foods were categorized as red-light foods, yellow-light foods, or green-light foods. When people ordered from a color-coded menu, they were more likely to order healthy foods found in the green light section and less likely to order unhealthy foods in the red-light section, than people ordering from normal menus.

The traffic light system is an easier to understand system than counting calories or trying to figure out sugar and fat contents of different foods. Maybe that is transferable to privacy?

There is still a massive privacy literacy gap: Can a traffic light system help?

Eat healthy is probably similar to trying to protect your privacy: Everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it (a borrowed punch line).

I do believe that most of us want to do the right thing, but understanding what is the best choice for us is difficult. The information gap between consumers, government and companies in both food production and online privacy is huge. Even if I doubt it, maybe a traffic light system could at least close that gap a bit.

A traffic light system might educate consumers and make it easier for them to make the best choices for their privacy. If setup correctly it could also increase the trust people have in buying digital tools, hardware and services.

Studies like the one done by Stanford show that people will tend to make the right decisions if they have easy access to the right information.

So, what do you think? Would a traffic light system help people make smarter privacy decisions?