Should we ditch the idea of privacy?

May 11, 2012

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, 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 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


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This is likely a positive idea and progression for society, but it will only work if the institutions we are providing this information to are just as transparent.

Posted by mdp88 | Report as abusive

Nope. Nada. Y’all have fun with that.

Posted by Kayser_Sosa | Report as abusive

Privacy and Politics:

When a person takes a public stand on a divisive political issue, he risks offending friends, neighbors, customers, and his employer. Those who disagree may even retaliate.

Considering this, many people avoid speaking out on political issues. But this silence harms democracy.

Fortunately, it is possible to write anonymous political comments on web sites such as Reuters. This allows readers the opportunity to speak out, while keeping their political orientation safely private.

Privacy has enormous value, and we should carefully protect our right to it.

Posted by DifferentOne | Report as abusive

The question is Privacy from whom?
There is no privacy as far as government is concerned, they read your email. And this post isn’t any more private than your email is if sought. That leaves corporate and individual. When Best Buy can figure out when your wife is having a Baby, before she even announces it to her husband, then we know privacy on the corporate side is just a fallacy for your individual ego.

Which leaves individual (social). The Social side is just a puzzle, most everyone (excluding me) will either complain or brag or voice concern about themselves. With enough research the privacy becomes an open book.
Basically the human not only enjoys, but needs to know, that his (her) privacy is protected, while all along it is their mouth or typewriter which breaches their own privacy. Like the bank robber who brags to his best friend how much money he stole and then gets caught because of it. We are the instrument ourselves whether privacy can be substantiated.

Posted by DDavid | Report as abusive

Of course we should have privacy.

People who violate it, as long as we are not public figures, should be punished. Violators most certainly should not be allowed any governmental employment.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

Privacy = the individual = value. It’s that simple. Less than that is… less than that.

Now, of course, people like Jarvis and others can sell empowerment to the talentless masses in exchange for popularity, a few shekels and a teaching gig. There’s a sucker born every day. But there’s more going on there. Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” comes to mind.

Anyway, Don, you redeemed yourself in the last three paragraphs. What took you so long? Hey, come to think of it, as a futurist, where were you with this clarion call five years ago?

Posted by briandconnolly | Report as abusive

The people at social media companies FEED on the personal data YOU provide them. They will say anything to make you dish out more details about your life that they will amass, and sell to advertisers for big profits. Destroying civilized society’s notion of privacy for their gain.

We live in a world where if a company finds out you are sickly, have a chronic illness, they will fire you. Your political views? ditto.
People like in Facebook, Julian Assange are like teenagers who do not understand the perils, dangerous of them placing sensitive information in the wrong hands, and they just use their computer skills to ‘grab and dash’ with as much notoriety/dollars, as they can get away with.

Posted by alane | Report as abusive

Should we ditch the idea of privacy? A well-guarded privacy in today’s social media driven world is an oxymoron. Or else, Yahoo’s CEO would have continued in office for another year, at least.

Posted by maGiK | Report as abusive

I was under the impression that privacy had ALREADY been ditched. Who thinks we still have privacy? Anyone? Anyone?

Posted by explorer08 | Report as abusive

As long as the sharing of personal information is not mandated I have no problem with it. There is a downside to unbridled openness. There are some who will use that data to exploit and even harm. Information is not just an asset, in the wrong hands it is a weapon. One should consider the risk before diving into the social media frenzy.

Posted by gordo53 | Report as abusive

The risk of admitting to illness or disease that will be expensive to cure could be enough to disqualify one from potential employment.

Being public on the social sites also means one can be dunned with come-ons for all sorts of dubious and even useless products and services. I’m not even on the social sites and I get hundreds of junk emails daily.

The information may be very public but the money others make on the data of your life isn’t. The public doesn’t get to spend the fortunes others make on all that personal information.

If privacy dies, so should private property. The prehistoric tribal societies (the instinct that is being seduced by the social media?) were usually all communal and family based. I’m sure prehistoric tribal societies were never that public about their lives if one was not part of the tribe. I also suspect that only a few people in tribal societies knew the whole story about the tribe or their environment and the rest lived in various states of ignorance, unconsciousness and the inability to see more than their immediate concerns.

Knowledge is power. But, I suppose, if so much information is available easily – perhaps knowledge looses its power? But money still has a lot of clout and that is the information that never gets so readily shared.

Living in an actual tribal society would probably have a lot less need for all those endless gadgets building an electronic tribalism. And they might not need the advertising either?

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

I do agree with “DifferentOne”. Furthermore the socialnets are just a reproduction of the consumption and publicity (Has the author read about “Cutural Industry” by Adorno and Horkheimer???). It keeps the mass out of policy, cause rarely the majority of people will discuss complex-deeper-timespending themes such as welfare, sustentability or health (financial, mental, spiritual…); they chat away about parties, shopping, sports and celebrities instead. It maintains their ilusion of living an extraordinary reality full of happines (unless their friends don`t “like” it).
On the other hand socialnets are doubtless efficiant to pull like-minded people together!

Posted by DoUKnowFoucault | Report as abusive

I don’t believe privacy and anonymity are synonymous, although they can overlap. Just because I share (publicly) an opinion or a piece of data regarding my life does not mean I am willing that anyone, Facebook for example, should know every intimate detail about me. What I discuss with my doctor is no one’s business save for my wife and my health insurer. Prior to the Internet we ate, shopped, travelled, worshipped, and voted without concern that private industry would gather all that information together to turn us into a marketing number.

I may choose to remain anonymous for a variety of reasons, some of them good and some not so good. This concept likewise predates the Internet. There may be situations where it is not healthy for the general public to know exactly who is making a particular comment, who is blowing the whistle, who is looking for specific information. The Alcoholics Anonymous model is a good example.

Posted by ChicagoFats | Report as abusive

Please see my second post on this topic!

Posted by DonTapscott | Report as abusive

This is one awesome blog article.Really looking forward to read more. Awesome.