Dave Allen

Facebook and your privacy – part 2 or How To Be Alone

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Privacy, privacy, the new American obsession: espoused as the most fundemental of rights, marketed as the most desirable of commodities, and pronounced dead twice a week.” – Jonathan Frantzen, 2002.

What does it mean to be “private?”

What follows is from Wikipedia and I believe it sums up neatly what the average person [i.e. not a lawyer,] might consider what privacy means:

Privacy [from the Latin privatus 'separated from the rest, deprived of something, esp. office, participation in the government', from privo 'to deprive'] 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 is broader than security and includes the concepts of appropriate use and protection of information.

The bold highlights are mine as I feel the words and sentences that I picked out are at the core of the debate about Facebook and privacy because of this – “Data privacy refers to the evolving relationship between technology and the legal right to, or public expectation of privacy in the collection and sharing of data about one’s self.”

In 2010 our ideas of privacy today versus the same ideas when considered in Latin now rest on that sentence – “the legal right to, or public expectation of privacy in the collection and sharing of data about one’s self.” Technology fractures the relationship between public and private information and creates a moral and ethical debate, now being aired in public, over how that information is used.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sparked this debate when he rather foolishly saidthe age of privacy is over…” I say foolishly because I think his intentions were not to fan the flames of discontent that were already smoldering around privacy issues [see Google Buzz,] but to try and get ahead of his competitors by attempting to embrace what he considered a societal shift toward more openness wherein he misconstrued openness as a willingness for people to share everything in public. He was very wrong.

He was wrong because in Western society, many people especially in the USA, consider privacy in many different ways. Here’s how Jonathan Frantzen considers his own privacy from his book of essays ‘How To Be Alone‘ – “…the local particulars of content matter less to me than the underlying investigation in all these essays: the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture: the question of how to be alone.

At this year’s SXSWi Conference, danah boyd [she only use lowercase letters in her name] came out firing in her keynote speech, taking Google CEO Eric Schmidt to task over the flaws in Google Buzz

DEAR ERIC SCHMIDT, PRIVACY IS NOT DEAD. KTHXBY.
No matter how many times a privileged straight white male technology executive pronounces the death of privacy, Privacy Is Not Dead. People of all ages care deeply about privacy. And they care just as much about privacy online as they do offline. But what privacy means may not be what you think.
Fundamentally, privacy is about having control over how information flows. It’s about being able to understand the social setting in order to behave appropriately. To do so, people must trust their interpretation of the context, including the people in the room and the architecture that defines the setting. When they feel as though control has been taken away from them or when they lack the control they need to do the right thing, they scream privacy foul.

boyd’s entire speech can be read here. In it she also points out that the “norm on many sites at this point is to invite users to share their Twitter or Facebook account or to upload their contacts so as to populate their network.” And therein lies the problem, one I addressed already in Part 1 of this essay.

As Justin Kistner of Webtrends said in a comment left on my first privacy post: “Facebook is merely the catalyst for a discussion society has needed to have about information exchange since the dawn of the Internet. They are an inevitable conflict that is built right into the business model of paying for a service by allowing them to monetize the data you contribute.

But, the real mind-bender is that privacy on Facebook isn’t about you controlling the data you publish about yourself, it’s also about controlling the data others publish about you, which isn’t a Facebook problem. For example, I don’t use Foursquare because I don’t want to share my real-time location. But, what’s to stop someone from tweeting that I’m at Beer and Blog? So, what can I do to prevent other people from sharing about me? If I can’t do much, then what publishing permissions am I granting from just walking outside?”

Good question – what publishing permissions do we grant by just walking outside?

In Imperial Bedroom, Frantzen riffs on how his “sense of privacy functions to keep the public out of the private and to keep the private out of the public.” He writes of how people are fooling themselves out on the sidewalks of New York, yakking the most personal of details into their mobile phones, giving up the most private of details to anyone in earshot. He notes that credit card companies offer their customers services grandly titled Privacy Guard that are not intended as marketed to “protect our privacy.” No, they are their to help protect the card companies against fraud, a huge money loser for them.

He talks about how some members of the public were outraged by the “invasion of privacy” suffered by President Clinton during the Kenneth Starr hearings to impeach him. In fact Frantzen saw the reverse of this media scrum.. “Hence the particular violation I felt when the Starr Report crashed in. Hence the feeling of being intruded on. It was privacy invasion, all right: private life brutally invading the most public of public spaces.” He’s referring here to his being exposed to all the lurid details of that report via television and his newspaper.

So here we are wrestling with the “idea” of “privacy” in a time when technology brought us the Internet followed by the web; systems and applications that created a huge societal and cultural shift in their wake. A time when we happily and without much afterthought give away all our personal information to third party companies like Facebook and Google, where we broadcast without compunction our every whereabouts through services such as Foursquare, and throughout all this we expect our “private life” to remain unaccessible to the “public.” Facebook, Google, Foursquare, Twitter et al could make things easier for us by providing a default system when we login to their services, one that asks us to opt-in to certain sharing of our information, rather than having to opt-out by jumping through hoops to do it.

Of course it is not in these companies interest to set up a system like that as it would deny them access to the rich data that they can get from us and share with their advertising and marketing clients.

In other words, we are fooling ourselves about “privacy” everyday.

Comments

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  • Dave Allen

    Justin, yes. It’s amazing how she and Frantzen, though both work in different disciplines, are well aligned in their thinking and also perhaps in their personal needs.

  • http://blogs.webtrends.com/ Justin Kistner

    Dave, this is the kind of thoughtful discussion we need to be having. Nice work.

    Striving for privacy really is the desire to be alone. I don’t think that’s what most people want. I think danah expresses what people really want when they call for privacy, “When [people] feel as though control has been taken away from them or when they lack the control they need to do the right thing, they scream privacy foul.”