The privacy myth

Online privacy is, in many ways, a contradiction in terms. The more people share personal information online, the less privacy they enjoy, at least relative to their level of privacy before venturing online.

What is privacy?

So what do we mean when we talk about “privacy”. Privacy is a pretty slippery concept and is somewhat difficult to define. That being said, there are a few definitions and explanations that help clarify this concept. Wikipedia defines privacy as follows:

Privacy is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or information about themselves and thereby reveal themselves selectively. The boundaries and content of what is considered private differ among cultures and individuals, but share basic common themes. Privacy is sometimes related to anonymity, the wish to remain unnoticed or unidentified in the public realm. When something is private to a person, it usually means there is something within them that is considered inherently special or personally sensitive. The degree to which private information is exposed therefore depends on how the public will receive this information, which differs between places and over time. Privacy can be seen as an aspect of security — one in which trade-offs between the interests of one group and another can become particularly clear.

Princeton’s WordNet defines privacy as “the quality of being secluded from the presence or view of others”. Loïc le Meur recently hosted a panel discussion about privacy at Davos which presents a number of perspectives on privacy. The video produced using footage from this panel discussion is worth watching although it does to run to about 47 minutes:

Challenging ideas about privacy

Ideally we would like to be able to control the quality and quantity of our personal information that is shared online. In fact many people would like to be able to control whether there is any information about them online at all. Unfortunately our ability to control the flow of personal information online (and its effect offline) is dependent on whether we disclose any information online and whether we can control whether other people disclose information about us online. The first factor is challenging enough. Sometimes the act of creating a profile online opens Pandora’s Box, so to speak, either because the profile you create is made public or the information you provide that service with is released without your consent.

When it comes to controlling whether and what personal information other people publish online, the challenges become increasingly difficult to the point of becoming almost insurmountable. Friends may ask permission before publishing personal information or may remove photographs when asked but between Google’s seemingly eternal memory and downright unethical third parties you may be forced to accept that once your personal information is released online, it has become very public and available to anyone who looks for it.

In this context, privacy online becomes an exercise of identity management rather than a question of total control. When it comes to identity management the emphasis shifts from controlling whether and how much personal information is published to asserting a claim over personal information about you in an effort to create a more cohesive and accurate identity online. One of the reasons to do this is to reduce the risk of identity theft by providing a readily ascertainable body of information that represents you and which you have asserted is about you. A good example of a service that helps people do this is ClaimID which gives users an opportunity to state which websites, services and published information is linked to them and how.

Managing personal information better

There are two strategies which can help mitigate the effect of the Internet on personal privacy. The first is to proactively manage your identity online. This means using services like ClaimID to create coherent and comprehensive personal profiles online and taking steps to differentiate aspects of your personality from those that either have no link to you or which are misrepresentations or misuses of your identity.

Another simple, yet powerful, strategy is to decide in advance which items of your personal information will never be disclosed online, ever. This strategy depends on the principle that what you don’t disclose can’t be disseminated and misused. Examples of personal information never to disclose may include your identity number, your home address, your home phone number, your children’s school and so on. Particularly sensitive personal information should be closely guarded from disclosure at all times and this requires vigilance.

Of course another important strategy is to take an active interest in published privacy policies. Services like Facebook publish a privacy policy that tells you what personal information is being collected and what it can and may be used for. These documents are often lengthy documents but they are important so it is worth spending some time reading them carefully and deciding for yourself whether your personal information will be adequately protected if you disclose it to those companies. If you find that the policies contain an unhealthy dose of legalese, chat to your lawyer about the implications of the policy before you just click “Agree”.

Bottom line

The popularity of services like Facebook and the social Web generally has led to more and more people venturing online and sharing information about themselves. The unintended consequence of this is that online privacy is largely an illusion, a myth and people need to adapt to a new paradigm and take proactive steps to better manage their personal information and set better personal information boundaries.

Published by Paul Jacobson

Enthusiast, writer, Happiness Engineer at @automattic. I take photos too. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

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