Should we ditch the idea of privacy?
The ubiquity of digital gadgets and sensors, the pervasiveness of networks and the benefits of sharing very personal information through social media have led some to argue that privacy as a social norm is changing and becoming an outmoded concept. In this three-part series Don Tapscott questions this view, arguing that we each need a personal privacy strategy.
Since I co-authored a book on privacy and the Internet 15 years ago I’ve been writing about how to manage the various threats to the security and control of our personal information. But today I find myself in a completely unexpected discussion. A growing number of people argue that the notion of having a private life in which we carefully restrict what information we share with others may not be a good idea. Instead, sharing our intimate, personal information with others would benefit us individually and as a society.
This is not a fringe movement. The proponents of this view are some of the smartest and most influential thinkers and practitioners of the digital revolution.
Jeff Jarvis, in his thoughtful book Public Parts, makes the case for sharing, and he practices what he preaches. We learn about everything from details of his personal income to his prostate surgery and malfunctioning penis. He argues that because privacy has its advocates, so should “publicness.” “I’m a public man” says Jarvis. “My life is an open book.” And he provides elaborate evidence on why this has benefited him, and says that if everyone followed his lead, the world would be a better place. He concludes that while releasing information should be a personal choice, privacy regulation should be avoided.
Facebook is the leading social-media site that promotes information sharing, and part of the company’s mission is to “make the world more open.” In his book The Facebook Effect, David Kirkpatrick explains that Facebook founders believe that “more visibility makes us better people. Some claim, for example, that because of Facebook, young people today have a harder time cheating on their boyfriends or girlfriends. They also say that more transparency should make for a more tolerant society in which people eventually accept that everybody sometimes does bad or embarrassing things.” Some at Facebook refer to this as “radical transparency” – a term initially used to talk about institutions that is now being adapted to individuals. In other words, everyone should have just one identity, whether at their workplace or in their personal life.
Stanford University professor Andreas Weigend, former chief scientist at Amazon.com, says that “the notion of privacy began with the creation of cities, and it’s pretty much ended with Facebook.” He says “our social norms are changing.”
Other thought leaders like Tim O’Reilly (he coined the term “Web 2.0″) or Steward Brand (author of the Whole Earth Catalog) defend an individual’s right to privacy. But they argue that the benefits of sharing personal information are becoming so beneficial to each of us and so widespread that we need to shift the discussion from what to share, to how to ensure the information we share is used appropriately. Says Brand: “I’d be totally happy if my personal DNA mapping was published.”
It may well be that our fundamental ideas about identity and privacy, the strategies that we have collectively pursued and the technologies that we have adopted must change and adapt in a rapidly evolving world of connectivity, networking, participation, sharing and collaboration. But this will take a long time, and in the meantime there are many challenges and even dangers.
To be sure, the digital technologies in general and social media in particular are providing new benefits to sharing personal information, and not just from getting more birthday wishes. There is a real upside to participating in communities, seeing photos, hearing stories or knowing the location of friends and family. Sharing also helps companies deliver personalized products and services. It can improve advertising, as we are targeted for products and services that correspond to our interests.
When we reveal personal information we can help society too. Every time a gay person comes out or someone with depression opens up about his condition, it helps break down stigma and prejudice. Fully 20 percent of all patients with the fatal disease ALS share intimate information about their treatment and condition on the network PatientsLikeMe.com. And tens of thousands of others with rare diseases who use that website report that sharing has helped them better manage their illness.
It is important to understand the extraordinary volumes of data being generated and how this will increase exponentially in the near future. In the course of a day, we generate the same amount of data as had been captured since the beginning of history up to the year 2003. Much of this is information attached to individuals. Our digital footprints and shadows are being gathered together, bit by bit, megabyte by megabyte, terabyte by terabyte, into personas and profiles and avatars – virtual representations of us, in thousands of locations.
In testimony before a congressional committee, Justin Brookman from the Center for Democracy & Technology, outlined the dilemma that citizens face when they want to participate fully in society yet not live under constant surveillance. “There is an incredible amount that we as a society have to gain from innovative new technologies, but there is also an incredible amount that we have to lose. Without a framework in place to assure everyday consumers of the ability to limit the collection and retention of the minutiae of their lives by unknown third parties, any sense of a realm of personal privacy may completely evaporate.”
Brookman cites many examples, such as the record kept of stories read on a newspaper’s website, compared with the anonymity of buying and reading a paper from a newsstand. Or going out for a drive, talking to friends, writing letters, watching TV – “all of these rights are eroding as these activities move into the networked world and surveillance technologies become more sophisticated.” Brookman likens the decision to opt out of being party to the data collection as analogous to opting out of electricity 30 years ago: “To disconnect from the services that collect such personal, sensitive data would be to disconnect from society.”
Before Facebook arrived, few would have predicted that hundreds of millions of people would voluntarily log on to the Internet and record detailed, almost minute-by-minute data about themselves, their activities, their likes and dislikes, and so on.
Soon smartphones (or other personal appliances like sunglasses with an internal screen) will have a persistent connection to the Internet and record nonstop video and audio of everything going on around us. This might strike some people as bizarre. They wonder: “What could I do throughout the day that’s so important that I would want to record it?” This is like asking two decades ago: “What’s so important that I would need to carry a phone everywhere so people could reach me?” Today most people view their cell phones as essential survival gear.
Soon a manager could ask her smartphone to retrieve the last five minutes of yesterday’s meeting with a colleague when they agreed on action items. She’ll transmit the video clip to her subordinates so they’ll know what to do. Businesspeople will archive meetings with associates or suppliers, so that if a dispute arises, they can go back and prove they’re right. Of course, since everybody knows everybody has a recording of the conversation, the dispute is less likely to arise.
Add to this the emerging “augmented reality” tools that can give you real-time information about the world around you when, say, you point your mobile device at the street. For augmented reality to work, the device must know precisely where you are and have a detailed understanding of what interests you. If you can annotate the physical world, a plethora of new capabilities open up. For example, when walking down the street and looking through the screen inside your sunglasses, perhaps you’ll be able to see the names and profiles of people you’re passing.
Lest you think managing all this data would be a nightmare, companies are already working to help ease the burden. Microsoft has a research program in progress called MyLifeBits. The program digitizes, catalogs and retrieves every conceivable scrap of information about your own life that you could want, such as photos, rock-concert tickets and wedding invitations. It acts as a surrogate memory. Google has a similar idea. The company sees the management and retrieval of the massive amounts of data each person will soon generate as an enormous business opportunity.
The tensions between information freedom and personal control are exploding today, and not simply because of the benefits of sharing information using new media. Rather there are massive commercial and government interests, as well as malevolent individuals, that have a lot to gain from each of us revealing highly granular personal information, much of it in the public domain by default and in real time as we travel through life.
But given that there are few social and legal controls over what happens to our personal information, a life plan of “being open” is probably a big mistake. Personal information, be it biographical, biological, genealogical, historical, transactional, locational, relational, computational, vocational or reputational, is the stuff that makes up our modern identity and is the foundation of our personal security. It must be managed responsibly – not just by others, but by each of us. The clear and present danger is the irreversible erosion of that most enabling of liberties: anonymity.
Yes, we need a broad discussion and new norms and even laws regarding what is done with this cornucopia of information. But each of us also needs a personal privacy strategy governing what information we release and to whom.
PHOTO: A “do not disturb” sign at the Ritz hotel in London during its 100th anniversary year, April 17, 2006. Reuters/Stringer