How to think about privacy: my rough notes after reading Mark Zuckerberg say The Age of Privacy is Over

More and more I hear: privacy is dead, over, finished. Case in point: Facebook’s Zuckerberg Says The Age of Privacy is Over. But is it true? If I think about the arguments for privacy being over, or the arguments against privacy, I get something like this:

Privacy is over because people share so much now: it is true, people do share alot more. But while people do share much more, they may also be sharing more selectively. For example, I find that I share alot more information via the various social media available (e,g, blogging, Facebook), but I am also aware of what I do share and where I share it. For instance, I assume everyone can and might read my blog and as a result, I am very selective of what I share there. Unlike Facebook, there is little personal information there. I do (or did) share more information with family and friends on Facebook. However, when I first used Facebook, the understanding I had — supported by Facebook — was that I would have much more control over who could see my information. However, it appears Facebook is reneging on that understanding. As a result, I am sharing less information on Facebook, and I am planning to share less there, and I am encouraging everyone to be mindful and selective of what they share there. I still like sharing information with people using technology, and there are alot of different sites and tools that allow me to do that and I will continue to do that, but I will strive to do it on my own terms.

This not just true for me and my generation, but younger people as well. When I see teens (like my own) sharing information, they often do it cryptically. (And not just teens.) They may do this for exclusive reasons, but they may also do it in order to maintain privacy. They are exerting their rights to control who gets to see information about them. Just like I do and others do with the privacy controls that they have available to them. People like and need privacy.

Another mistake people make is assuming that behaviors that were once private but no longer are therefore equals/means privacy is dead. It is more likely the case that what was once considered shameful or embarrassing or otherwise detrimental to a person now no longer is. I think sexting is a terrible idea, but if enough young people do it, people will eventually shrug, they way they now shrug at ads for birth control or topless beaches. It won’t be that people don’t value privacy: it will just mean that they don’t think such things needs to be private any longer, and dinosaurs like me can complain all they want about sexting because let’s face it, no one wants to see me with no clothes on anyway. 🙂 (No doubt they will also poke fun at me for paying for music on iTunes, too.)

Privacy is over because technology deprives you of it: why is this true? People do put their privacy at risk by adopting new technologies that they can’t/don’t understand or control. However, they make a deal, explicitly or implicitly, with the organizations that they are sharing that information with, be it a business, the government, or some other organization. If customers think that the banks cannot protect their financial privacy, they are going to find other ways to do financial transactions. Indeed, the offering of enhanced privacy becomes a valuable commodity, and companies that offer it will have a competitive advantage. Likewise, if citizens think that the government cannot protect there personal privacy, they are either going to elect a new government or find ways to not share information with the government. Right now criminals do this as a matter of course. However, if people mistrust their government and feel there privacy is being compromised, everyone may do it as a matter of course.

And if they can’t come to an agreeable arrangement with newer technologies that threaten to take away privacy, people will adopt a number of stances to deal with that. One is to hide your identity. People do this often now. Indeed, most people participating in social media use handles without photos instead of using their real name and image. Another way is to adopt proxies of some sort. Any networking technologies — which will more and more come to mean all technology — are open to the use of proxies. If privacy becomes scarce, than proxies will become valuable.

Finally, people will just avoid, not use or misuse technologies that try to rob them of their privacy. It will be a struggle at first, but privacy is an elemental need of people.

Why do you need privacy? You must have something to hide. That may be true, but anyone who thinks that this is all that privacy is about has a limited understanding of the value of privacy. Privacy is not hiding something you have done wrong. Privacy is about controlling your life on your terms. Privacy is about having sovereignty over your life and what you do with it. To illustrate this, let’s take some simple examples.

You need privacy to control your financial affairs: in the course of your life you have to share financial information about yourself with others (e.g., the government, the bank, your employer). However, in a progressive society, it is in your best interests and the society’s best interest to limit how much of that information you share. If you were not able to keep this information private, than in the worst case, criminals would know that you have valuable property, and they may decide to rob you. If you did not have alot of valuable property, people might discriminate against you based on that fact. (Indeed, that happens now to people whose appearance discloses this fact). And regardless of your financial standing, full disclosure of your financial affairs puts you at a disadvantage in all sorts of business dealings and allows you to be taken advantage of. If you can’t mind your own business, others will do it at your loss.

You need privacy to control your identity: If you are not able to keep things like passwords or other information about yourself private, people could find out this information and either use it against you, or they could engage in identity theft and pass themselves off as you. People can also take information about you and by putting it out of context, use it against you to your disadvantage.

You need privacy to escape social norms: Other than a very limited number of people, most people would not want to have their lives filmed and on display 24 hours a day. For it is not just being on display: it is being judged and acted upon based on what you display. You might have a position in society that expects you to behave a certain way in public. (And it could be as simple as being well groomed, conservative and exceedingly polite.) But when you in your own home, you might want to give that up and be another way, even if that other way is relaxed. Privacy allows you to do that. Maybe you want to wear the same sweatpants from Friday night to Monday morning. Maybe you want to dance around in (what to you is) an embarrassing way to some music few people like. Maybe you want to clean your house in the nude! Whatever the behavior is, privacy allows you to do that.

You need privacy to negotiate difficult situations: Likewise, let’s say there was a disagreement in your family, and some people unfairly insist you do not speak to others in your family. You are caught in the middle of an unfair dispute, and you hope to resolve it by talking to both sides. Privacy allows you to do that. Indeed, to be effective in negotiations, privacy is essential.

You need privacy to prevent or reduce prejudice and discrimination: As a young adult, let’s say your friend posts images of you and your friends out drinking and having fun. They post them on Facebook, but just to your friends, because they don’t want everyone to see them. In other words, they want some degree of privacy regarding this.  However, one of your friends is related to someone who works for the new company you want to work for, and in doing a search on Facebook, is able to see you out partying. Now, you may be a very responsible individual at work, but this person assumes the worst about you because of these pictures and screens you out of the position. This is not really fair, but because of a lack of privacy, you are stuck.

Likewise, let’s say you are socially conservative and you are a strong supporter of right wing parties in the country you live in. You join some groups on Facebook and you express your political opinions there. As it turns out, the new position you want to go work for in your company is managed by someone whose political views are the direct opposite of yours. That person does a search for you in Google and sees some of the things that you have been saying in the Facebook groups and then finds another reason not to take you on in that role, even though you were a very strong candidate.

You need privacy to express yourself fully:
this is again related to norms. Let’s say you wanted to create something that is not harmful, but would be disapproved of by people you normally want to associate with. Maybe you belong to a religious family, but you want to study art and eventually draw nudes. Maybe you want to learn how to become a lawyer, even though your family hates lawyers. And maybe you fell in love with someone who makes you feel more alive than you ever felt before, but you feel constrained from being public with showing this feeling due to censure from others. Privacy again comes to the rescue.

Privacy supports greater equality and greater freedom:
In societies where there is a political imbalance, and one side has power over another and lords it over them, privacy can help restore balance. If one sides tries to unfairly prevent the other from seeking a better education or a better deal or a fairer distribution of power, privacy can provide the cover needed to allow change to occur.

Privacy can be abused, too. People can commit crimes and hypocritically treat people badly away from others. But to throw out privacy because of these things is to throw out the baby to get rid of the bath water. Likewise, people can say giving up privacy can be worth it in order to gain all these new technologies or ways of doing things. But I think we can have both the new things and privacy.

Anyway, if you’ve read to here, thanks. There are, without a doubt, better sources on privacy that will argue a much better case for it than what I have done here. If you know of them, please comment here. But even with my limited arguments, I hope you will think about why privacy is important and why self serving people like Mark Zuckerberg is wrong when he argues that privacy is over. I like Facebook, and I would be happy for it to succeed. But it should do so and respect — and that is the key word: respect — people’s wishes and need or privacy.


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10 responses to “How to think about privacy: my rough notes after reading Mark Zuckerberg say The Age of Privacy is Over

  1. Very interesting article Bernie. I, however, think the biggest threat to our privacy is the combination of the concentration of our private information in a few companies (Google, Facebook, ISPs, etc) and the government’s ability to force them to turn over this information (increasing with little or no judicial oversight). Generations who did not live through the age of fascist governments are quickly forgetting the lessons learned by those who did.

    • smartpeopleiknow

      Good comments, Tom. You are right: concentration of private information without proper auditing and controls is a serious concern. More and better governance is needed for everyone’s benefit, including the companies and organizations that gather and use the data.

  2. A timely & very pertinent article!
    Contrary to popular belief, I happen to agree that, privacy is NOT dead.
    (At least, not entirely…..yet.)
    While one cannot deny that the vast proliferation of information sharing websites and other communications technologies have, undoubtedly and irrevocably compromised the security of private information, we do possess some degree of control. Being cognizant of the virtual omnipresence of prying ears & eyes necessitates the use of absolute discretion, in combination with a well developed sense of propriety.
    Sadly, there is more than sufficient proof to substantiate the argument for “mass apathy”, as evidenced by much of the content one sees, for example, in “status updates” & comments on Facebook.
    Clearly, a hefty percentage of FB users are either, 1)oblivious to the fact that the information they post, is visible to a much larger audience than they presume, 2)they don’t know about “Privacy settings”, or 3)maybe, they just don’t care. (?)
    I have a theory about this, but I’ll tell you about it later….
    “privately.”

    • smartpeopleiknow

      You are right: we do maintain a degree of control. Indeed, we are constantly negotiating our degrees of privacy both in the technical world and the real world (hence the use of picture windows AND curtains).

      I think people do care when the privacy threat is easy to understand (e.g., online banking). But for other things, people don’t appreciate the risk involved (e.g. Facebook, but also things like weak passwords). There is an education of the users of IT that needs to be done.

  3. Pingback: Still think privacy is dead? Read about Google Buzz and see why you should think different « Smart People I Know

  4. I stumbled across this thanks to the automatic generator redirecting from my own blog which revolves around the topic of privacy. Thanks for writing this excellent contemplative piece on privacy.

    Certainly, I think you’re right that the measure of privacy is being shifted. I think privacy requires much more effort and human discipline than it used to, and that is why it feels to many like it is dying. Perhaps, just as I believe the major move from manuscript to print did in the 17th century, information forces a change. If privacy is defined by the ability to withhold or not, we are certainly seeing changes.

    On the one hand, dissemination – as it always has been – is so hard to control. Whilst it is arguably unfair to see the kinds of discrimination you mention here, if someone photographed in an uncompromising situation has to rely on others to safeguard their privacy for them, that’s not a comfortable place to be. On the other hand, ‘public’ abounds. What doesn’t help the cause, as you note, is the human prerogative to share everything now. We had an election in the UK earlier this year, and the political peer pressure over Facebook appalled me. This sort of thing barely seemed on the radar five years ago, but now it seems the most natural thing in the world to intimidate private boundaries in public boundaries.

    The big problem I now have with tools like Facebook is that those who, for their sense of privacy, do not have accounts, get forgotten about far too easily. To be public is more necessary, it seems, and that is a shame. But I do find myself watching very carefully what I share as well, now, and probably just swallow a lot more than I used to. With the spread of companies now claiming to be able to make poor or damaging internet content about individuals as good as vanish, I wonder how heavily they will be using privacy in their marketing push.

    I’m nervous about privacy in the future. But I will be an interested spectator at the same time.

    • smartpeopleiknow

      Thanks very much for your comments, Keith.

      I would argue that anyone who belongs to a tight knit community knows the challenge in maintaining privacy, regardless of how much technology is involved. What has changed with technology is that now the people who are invading your privacy may be people you don’t know, and the ways they are invading your privacy are ways you aren’t sure of. In a small town, inviting the neighborhood busybody into your house is a way to damage your privacy and therefore the way to manage that is simple: keep them out of your house! With the Internet, that gets harder.

      Privacy, like freedom, is something that requires eternal vigilance. It is worth it, however. One way we can support that vigilance is talking about the ways others try to take that privacy away. Another way we can do that is communicate ways people can protect their privacy.

  5. Pingback: On Inception and Privacy « Smart People I Know

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