Anti-Buzz: Our Vanishing Privacy

by Andrew Emmott on September 11, 2012

in Anti-Buzz,General,Security

The Buzz: We are losing our privacy to large companies.

The Anti-Buzz: We are still in control of what we give away.

Here’s a common story:

1. 25-year old drinks too much.
2. 25-year old, via smart phone, posts photos of all the empty alcohol containers onto Facebook, probably with captions like “lol”
3. 25-year old has a really bad hangover.
4. 25-year old, without leaving bed, posts a status update about how “epic” the hangover is.
5. 25-year old calls in sick to work.
6. 25-year old’s employer does a cursory check of Facebook.
7. 25-year old is fired.

I think a good deal of us roll our eyes at this sort of story, and we like to think of the “victims” as “stupid” except this type of thing really is common enough that a more honest interpretation is “young and foolish.”

These sorts of stories are also the extreme examples. The Facebook Follies include milder gags such as swearing in front of your parents, talking about sex in front of your boss, posting something that reveals ignorance or stupidity and everybody’s favorite old-person mistake: not realizing that what you just posted wasn’t private. The ensuing awkwardness, in all cases, have one common element: The communication was more visible than the speaker wanted it to be.

Privacy is dead, some would say.

Privacy is a hot button issue for many people. Dentists and other medical professionals have long strived to respect patient privacy, and new digital records have opened a new avenue for that privacy to be violated, but that’s more of a security issue, and not really part of this week’s topic. The general issue of our vanishing privacy is what I’m after.

Let’s go back to our original story. It used to be a drunk young person could confide in his friends about his misadventures. Well, he still can, he just shouldn’t do it on a public forum. If you are the sort who is a little dazed – or at least not particularly impressed with – social media, understand that most young people are suffering the opposite problem, which is that they are so hooked on it and comfortable with it that they haven’t yet realized how it affects their offline social and professional lives. I’m expecting the next generation will be a little wiser, given that they’ll be raised by the first generation to suffer through the merging of all their social circles. And that’s basically what Facebook has done; it’s turned into a place where you hang out with your friends while your family, boss and people you didn’t like in high school watch. It’s sort of annoying.

Outside of newer initiatives to educate teens and kids on more careful navigation of the Internet, this aspect of our vanishing privacy isn’t really talked about, and I think it’s sort of dishonest. When most people get in a huff about privacy, they are complaining about all the personal information Google et. al sucks out of you when you use their services. There are some legitimate complaints; many companies obfuscate the fact that you are signing away your privacy when you interact with them, but I’m about to propose and admittedly unpopular view point: Our privacy is vanishing, and maybe we should just kind of chill out about it. Given that many of us have trouble adequately cultivating our own privacy in open forums where we have complete control – and there is no ambiguity about what we’re doing – I’m going to suggest that personal responsibility should enter the conversation a bit more often. You have a right to privacy, and a right to be properly informed, and a right to complain when somebody comes at you in a dodgy way, but after that it’s your job to manage your privacy in your own way.

And if you don’t like what I’m saying, I’ve found that the following analogy usually hits home.

The Entertainment Industry. (A common target for me, I know). Actually, the ramifications of the Internet sort of threw everybody for a loop, but the Entertainment Industry especially had to, and still is, adjusting to the digital age. And we like to scoff at whatever company seems to not get it. We like to laugh at the fall of the House of Borders, and the musicians who sell more records when their music is freely available than when it isn’t. We like to stick our heads up high and feel superior in our ability to understand the 21st century. And then we turn around and freak out about our lack of privacy.

Many businesses have had to suck it up and change their business model. I think with privacy our “business model” has to change to. Our vanishing privacy is our own private Napster Scare. We are angry, we perceive a huge loss, we are upset that the model has changed. We sound kind of like those business executives who “don’t get it.” I think this is a fair thing to say because the Facebook Follies prove that we still don’t completely know what we’re doing yet. Privacy is our commodity that we have to manage.

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