Online Privacy is an Illusion

PrivacyYes … not that there ever really was an “age of privacy”. I’ve always thought that the concept of privacy online was really more of an illusion than reality. When you share private information on any online service, you are trusting that service to keep your information private. The catch is that these companies are run by people; people who make mistakes with your data or people who change their minds about how much of their service should be private or public. There are plenty of examples of online services that have been hacked or employees who carry your private data on unsecured devices where your private data has been compromised. The privacy changes at Facebook have certainly stirred up additional debate about the issue of online privacy, and Marshall’s recent ReadWriteWeb article on the topic is what prompted me to write this post. I’m not going to get into whether what Facebook is doing is right or wrong, since the bigger question about whether online privacy is an illusion is much more interesting to me.

We take risks whenever we put our private data in the hands of another person (online or offline). It’s important to understand those risks and make the decision about what you share and where you share it. I’m very active online, and I share quite a bit of information with people, but I think about what I want to share and what should remain private. I tend to be a fairly open person, so I keep very little information private, but anything that I want to remain private doesn’t get shared online. For example, I may let people know that I’m attending sxsw, but I probably won’t share the address of where I’m staying while I’m in Austin.

Using Marshall’s examples from his Closer Look at Facebook’s New Privacy Options:

“Chances are you wouldn’t tell grandma about the wild party you went to last Saturday night. Likewise, you might have spent Sunday evening at home knittin’ a mitten and only feel secure enough in your manhood to share pictures of your fiber craft with family.”

However, your cousin who is also your friend on Facebook might decide to share the details of your wild party with grandma or decide to share pictures of your lovely knitted mittens with everyone they know. Or at some point a bug in Facebook’s code could expose your secret knitting habit or wild party pictures with the world. Or the executives at Facebook could decide that their service should have more public information. The knitting and the wild party were never really private, and realistically neither one of these examples is probably a big deal in the long run. Your grandmother will forgive you (and she might even relate if she attended a wild party or two in her younger days), and eventually your friends will stop making fun of your knitting hobby.

The real problem is when people think their data is more private than it is. Even people operating under user names that aren’t personally identifiable can often be tracked down using IP address if someone really wanted to find out who they are. Those of us who work in technology and who understand the internals of how websites and the internet work have a much better understanding of how secure our information is and can better manage the risk. It’s up to us to help educate or less technologically-savvy friends and family about what privacy really means online. We each need to decide how much “private” information we share based on the risk of it becoming more public vs. the reward associated with sharing any particular type of information.

Photo by Flickr user rpongsaj used under Creative Commons.

3 thoughts on “Online Privacy is an Illusion”

  1. The problem comes when we try to think of privacy as a binary secret. Far from it, privacy in the offline world is very nuanced and contextual. I may trust some people with certain information, but I have a right to be upset if they breach that trust. The same is true online. Social networking services market certain features for privacy control, and we should hold them fully accountable. Likewise, our trusted friends and family need to understand that it doesn’t matter whether we whisper in their ear or post it to only three people on Facebook. The expectations are still there. Marshall is very right about Facebook. Facebook built itself up on the notion of privacy, amassing tons of personal data, then pulled a bait and switch by forcing to public many types of information that could be controlled previously, and by strongly guiding people into new defaults that are more public. The network effects, the proliferation of single sign-on with Facebook Connect, and the ongoing non-portability of contributed data skew people’s incentives. Surely there’s a happy medium where people can have the kind of online relationships they desire, without being undermined by the very services that rely on their accounts to stay in business.

  2. I highly agree that the internet privacy is mostly an illusion, but so are a lot of other things in our society, e.g. the stock market fluxing depending on stock brokers’ feelings on the market.

    However, my problem with Zuckerberg & FB is that they’re drawing the line in the sand for me. They’re trying to decide for me how open I should be on the internet and that’s not cool.

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