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On our profile page, we're giving users choices among three privacy settings for each field.

The checkbox choices will not appear until a user highlights a particular field, but we do want to convey (via a visual metaphor) that the same three privacy choice options exist for every field on the page, regardless of whether a field is highlighted in a given moment or not.

Is there a widely-understood visual metaphor for privacy?

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Unfortunately "Icon for X" are off topic so this question stand the risk of being closed. However, there are icon questions which are on topic. Read more about icon in our tag wiki –  Benny Skogberg MCSA Jan 20 '13 at 19:10
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I took the liberty of editing your question ta ask for a visual metaphor instead. This might give you an answer which you can elaborate on in your pursuit for an icon. –  Benny Skogberg MCSA Jan 20 '13 at 19:16
    
@BennySkogberg This is broad enough question as most applications need to deal with privacy. In my opinion it should be allowed. –  JohnGB Jan 20 '13 at 19:36
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@JohnGB That's why I edited the question to avoid it for being closed as an "Icon for X" question. There is also a new meta discussion on the topic. –  Benny Skogberg MCSA Jan 20 '13 at 19:40
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Thank you @BennySkogberg and JohnGB. I didn't know the "Icon for X" wasn't allowed - IMHO it seems like it is an valid inquiry that could lead to better UX. Best, –  Mark Gavagan Jan 20 '13 at 20:52

2 Answers 2

A lock is the most commonly used that I have seen, as privacy generally is about locking away or hiding information.

Some usable examples are:
enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

The recent MEGA logo (copyrighted I'm sure) is a great example, but not one that you can easily use. It does however show a growing understanding of a lock representing privacy. enter image description here

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The lock icon sometimes means that the item is "unchangeable". However, it is also used to mean privacy, and I can't think of a better option. At one point, faced with this issue, I chose to use a picture of a "safe", but to be perfectly honest it did not work as well as I hoped. –  AgilePro Jan 20 '13 at 20:53
    
Locks are vague though since they are also used with SSL, online security metaphors, and parental controls. –  AbsoluteƵERØ May 5 '13 at 3:59

An eye works for this purpose, and it explicitly refers to the potential agent(s) who might 'see' what data is not private (arguably the most important piece of the picture), rather than to the data itself.

  • Internet Explorer used this for a long time, which means a huge potential audience is experienced with it.
    privacy_eye_IE-Windows

A mask or other way of concealing the face also works (a disguise might do the same), in this case referring to the user (with his or her visibility standing in for his or her data's visibility).

  • Firefox includes this in its privacy settings, which is similar (in that it includes eyes) but different (in that it portrays the user rather than the outside agent).
    privacy_mask_Firefox
  • Chrome uses or used a similar icon, involving masked identity, for their Incognito Mode (specifically for extra privacy).
    enter image description here (also see this version)

The common thread here, of course, is sight, and whether others can see their data.

Both of these choices would seem to be less encumbered by multiple meanings than a lock icon would be (e.g. conflict with "unchangeable" as @AgilePro mentioned).

(Another similar representation would be a ghost, such as for Ghostery, where translucence ~= invisibility ~= privacy, but that is also encumbered by other meanings.)


(more examples, with redundancy:)
redundancy, vision concept

(more with redundancy including the lock concept:)
redundancy, vision and lock concepts

(Note: I found some interesting icons very related to this while looking for the Firefox mask icon. https://wiki.mozilla.org/Privacy_Icons

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