As The Media Becomes Social, Do We Really Still Care About Privacy?

Filed as News on February 15, 2007 8:13 am

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Jeremy Wagstaff asks over at his Loose Wire blog whether we have overcome our concerns about privacy. With all the ways people can now share information online, and contribute content for public consumption, is privacy still an issue? Or is privacy really an issue at all, in the first place?

If there’s one myth that endures in this age of online participation, blogs, shared photo albums and Web 2.0, it’s that we’ve overcome our concerns about privacy. It sounds on the surface, logical: We must have gotten over this weird paranoia, or else why would we share so much online? Why would we bother about privacy issues when there’s no real evidence that people, companies, governments and the NSA are out to get us?

Jeremy argues that privacy is still an issue, but it’s not really something that we human beings are good at protecting. Technology can be very exciting, especially with how quickly we’ve advanced in the way we communicate and the way we share, store and catalog information. In a way, technology has progressed so fast that we just tend to jump in with using tools that make our lives easier and forget about covering our tracks.

[I]f we’re talking more generally about folk who have embraced the Net in the past 10 years, I’d have to say I don’t think it’s that we don’t care about privacy. We just don’t understand it. In that sense nothing has changed. I think what is happening is the same as before: People don’t really understand the privacy issues of what they’re doing, because the technology, and its liberating sensuality, are moving faster than we can assimilate to our culture.

Usually, it’s because we just don’t stop to think about the privacy implications, or we don’t stop to ask deeper questions about the sacrifices we may be making when we buy something, give information to a stranger, register for something, accept something, invite someone in to our digital lives, install software, sign up for a service, or simply accept an email or click on a link. The speed of communication – click here! register here! — makes all this easier.

It’s not just about submitting or revealing information to service providers. With the media becoming more and more social, everyone is now encouraged to share. It’s user-contributed this, and user-contributed that. Family photos on flickr, personal journals on blogs, videos of you and your girlfriend on YouTube, public bookmarks on del.icio.us, stories DUGG on DIGG–these are contributed by people, and from these much can be learned about that person behind the keyboard.

It’s so easy not to have to worry about the risks. For instance, some bloggers I know make their identities and contact information publicly available. Several of these people even write about their personal lives publicly–where they work, where they go to school, the general vicinity of their homes, who they’re friends with. And even those who do not publicly make their names available might have photos online, and still do write about their thoughts, activities and friends. Smart readers would, one way or another, be able to connect the dots and figure out that person’s real identity.

It’s the same with social networking sites; in fact it’s even a bigger issue. The point behind social networking is to build up a profile and a network of friends and contacts (whether personal or business). Hence, it’s more difficult to hide your real identity, unless that is your intention. It’s either you’re there or not. True, some social and business networking sites do not disclose information no non-members of your network. But then again there’s the question of whether those within your network are truly trustworthy.

It’s even worse when it’s not you, but other people who make supposedly private information public. I tried doing a map search for my street, and was led to this page on Wikimapia. Someone has obviously been too eager to populate the information page for this area of Metro Manila suburbia (I live somewhere here, but fortunately no one has marked where exactly my house is)–you can see names attached to houses! Sure, it’s not as if just anyone can identify the exact street and house number from the satellite imagery, but if you’re familiar with the place (like I am), then it would be very easy to do some stalking.

There has always been a tradeoff between security and convenience. Life sure is easier if you don’t have to deal with the privacy implications of what you do. It sure feels good not to think about the potential risks in publishing personal information on your blog or online journal. It feels liberating not to have to worry about crooks are reading your MySpace profile or checking out your Flickr photos. It sure feels great not to have to worry about filling in and submitting credit card details online. But the reality is that there are people out there who might be able to access that information, and might be thinking of bad things to do with such information–like steal your identity, impersonate you, spam you, or worse!

Do we really care much about privacy? Most would probably consider privacy to be important. But I would agree with Jeremy Wagstaff that it’s because of the “liberating sensuality” of technology that many have preferred to go the easy way.

Lorelle asked recently whether you are who you blog you are, and gave some tips on how to both keep anonymous, and establish credibility at the same time. It’s my turn to ask: do you actually take great pains to protect your privacy when it comes to your blogs, online profiles or other social media apps? Or does it not matter as much?

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  1. » As The Media Becomes Social, Do We Really Still… - myspacerip.comFebruary 15, 2007 at 8:49 am
  2. By Rory posted on February 15, 2007 at 11:18 pm
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    I find it very hard to be that concerned about privacy. I am not sure what it is we are fearful of. It seems to me to be an abstract fear.

    Are we more worried about the thought of the stalker or sicko? Do we envisage the drooling man, plastered hair, ugly face, sitting at his computer in his underpants? But, does he live in your town? In your vicinity? Can he be bothered to travel?

    Are there actual cases of frightening things happening? And, if there are, how many are there? And what were the details? I’m not asking about the people that hide who they are on social websites, arrange meetings, and then etc. That’s a whole different subject. I’m just asking about what it is we are worried about when it comes to blogging. What is our fear?