Privacy is neither dead nor dying


The recent Crunchies invu with Facebook’s Zuckerberg led to all kinds of reporting about privacy in a digital world. But has our desire for privacy changed at all?

Various articles suggested that Zuckerberg had claimed privacy was dead. He didn't say this, but he did indicate that he thought privacy had changed since the internet began and that we may need to re-think the concept today. He’s not the first to have mentioned this, but what merit is there in his view? Is privacy dead or dying?

I’ll leave aside the broader concerns about whether all of our waking life is now under surveillance ie. We’re caught on camera by CCTV 300 times a day on average in the uk urban environment and credit cards mean that all of our transactions are now made available to various third parties. Instead, I’ll focus on the leisure experience of life online.

Undoubtedly, life online is a much more visible affair today than it was when the Internet began. In part, this is because the web is now a much more visually centred enterprise, rather than just the text based environment it was in the early years. Of course, this relies on a theory of identity – are images and film more capable of revealing ourselves than text? Perhaps not.

Nevertheless, a lot of the early research talked about the negotiation of identity extensively, how early netizens played with gender, sexuality, etc. Today, people may be more visually present online than they ere previously, though this heightened visibility is only partially indicative of the relinquishing of privacy. Let’s consider some very simple statistical propositions.

  • If 100% of users reveal 100% of their lives online, then we may claim that privacy is dead.
  • If 100% of users display 80% of their lives online, but 10 years ago, only revealed 30% of their lives, then we may claim that privacy is dying.

However,

  • If 100% of users share only 30% of their lives and, 10 years ago they revealed 10% of themselves, then we may not make any claims about the death of privacy. Moreover, we would have to know a lot more about what that additional 20% involves.

Instead of claiming that privacy is dying, we may, instead, claim that the additional functionality of the web permits a greater degree of personal expression than was previously possible. This allows many more people to find a way of sharing information about themselves. These people may still wish to keep many aspects of their lives private, but they are a much more confident and expressive population. This may also be a result of having matured as digital citizens.

Yet, privacy is very much alive and kicking, we just negotiate it in slightly more complicated ways and this can be disorientating. I expect that the stats about what people share vary considerably. 50% of users may reveal 80% of their lives, while the other 50% discuss only 5% of themselves. In my experience, people have very clear boundaries online, even if these are not enshrined within privacy policies. Consider a Facebook account. It is likely that many users are unaware of how their content is experienced by either their ‘friends’ or outsiders, but if asked, they may express vary precise expectations about their boundaries.

A big challenge is how we engage with privacy online. The era of reading privacy policies never really took off and there’s a lot more work needed to find ways of engaging people with how they define their privacy settings. I suspect that scrolling through an agreement and clicking ‘I accept’ doesn't quite do the job. Perhaps we need some kind of digital game solution – a kind of role-play – through which we demonstrate how we feel about certain privacy issues.

Maintaining digital privacy is about a) ensuring that what we put online goes only so far as we would like and b) being allowed to keep offline those aspects of our lives that we would prefer not to share.

Consider Google Analytics or web history tracking devices – even cookies, remember the fuss about them? A lot of people may be anxious about an automated or default tracking device on their browser, while others will use programmes like Delicious to publicly bookmark sites of interest. Consider one difficult, but common example. If you have a medical condition that you prefer others not to know about, then it is desirable to protect browsing history from any tracking software. Yet, one of the difficulties with separating out privacy experiences is that our movements online are quite haphazard. One second we could be watching David Letterman clips on YouTube and, in a moment, we may be looking for information about a personal medical condition. When we switch from one search to another online, we do not go through the kinds of social conventions that are otherwise present – like the act of going to a doctor’s surgery, which involves a whole series of events: getting ready to go out, travelling to the surgery, entering the building, going to reception, perceiving other patients, sitting and waiting, etc.

The difficulty with privacy today is that those transitions are not always apparent online and that we are still trying to make sense of different types of space. The other day, I tweeted on how we should regard an email – whether it is treated as a concise published document - a definitive record of intended meaning - or as ‘thinking out loud’.

One problem with life online is that we haven’t found a good way of distinguishing types of communication intentions. For example, any institutional email message usually ends with an automated disclaimer about the content and people are often quite anxious about getting their words absolutely right. But, perhaps we should think of the written word online as more like the spoken word offline? Clearly environments like twitter and even sms fill this gap to some degree, but they don’t allow us to avoid the misunderstandings that often arise by the absence of body language.

Digital privacy today has even more interesting facets. If you’ve not yet discovered Stranger Chat, then this may be an interesting case study for assessing how our negotiation of identity online has changed. Stranger Chat – as the name suggests – involves logging into an environment and starting up a conversation with whoever else is online (eg. Omegle, Iddin). The dynamics of this experience make it even more difficult to make sense of how we continue to play with our identity online, but the starting point should absolutely be about play. Arguably, we’re so fed up with finding people via social media, that we’re now keen on recovering some anonymity.

Yet, be warned. Like many spaces online – including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and many others – it is also populated by the pervasive – and often unwelcome - sexpectations of the user community. Just don’t start with saying ‘asl’