Can we retain privacy in the era of Big Data?

May 16, 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. Part one can be read here.

Privacy is nothing if not the freedom to be let alone, to experiment and to make mistakes, to forget and to start anew, to act according to conscience, and to be free from the oppressive scrutiny and opinions of others.

It may seem an odd notion today, but in its infancy the Internet was a favorite refuge for many seeking privacy. A famous New Yorker cartoon published almost 20 years ago featured two dogs sitting in front of a computer, with one saying to the other: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

Today such anonymity is essentially non-existent. Practical obscurity – the basis for privacy norms throughout history – is fast disappearing. Our society is collectively creating, storing and communicating information at nearly exponential rates of growth. Most of this data is personally identifiable, and third parties control much of it. This personal data will be archived online forever and be instantly searchable, and few appreciate how many ways this data might be used to harm us.

Yes, likely someday there will be norms, laws and practices governing the responsible use of all this data. But practically, these do not exist today. There is little guarantee that personal information you share from social-media sites is locked down or will not be used in ways that harm you. Much of it can be searched and retrieved by anyone on the Internet, including employers, law enforcement officials, public-sector agencies, infomediaries, lawyers, the press and anyone else who may be interested in the data.

When this data is assembled into profiles, matched with other information and used to make (automated) judgments about (and decisions affecting) individuals – such as in hiring them or admitting entry, calculating benefits or terms of an offer, or corroborating a claim – then the effects of privacy loss include discrimination, especially if the data is inaccurate.

Young people are being denied that dream job simply because they didn’t understand they needed to be careful about what they posted on Facebook. Ninety percent of all employers access young people’s social-media pages when they are considering an application. Seventy percent have rejected people based on what they found. Some employers demand that job applicants provide social-media IDs and passwords as a precondition to hiring.

College applicants are being rejected because of their Facebook Newsfeed. Facebook postings have been deemed admissible by courts during litigation. And in some cases privacy settings won’t help – information you have restricted to close friends can be discoverable.

Privacy is important to our concept of the self and our relationships with others. Even though the human condition requires connection, we also need to feel confident that we can be alone and unwatched when we want to be. Says privacy advocate Ann Cavoukian: “We are social animals who seek contact with each other, and we benefit from sharing information appropriately. But we also seek moments of solitude, intimacy, quiet, reserve and private reflection. These interests have co-existed for centuries and must continue to do so, for the human condition requires both.”

The tension between these needs is a subject of much discussion among psychologists and psychiatrists, described well in Masud R. Khan’s collections of essay entitled The Privacy of the Self. The book discusses our need for living in a community with others but at the same time our want and need to preserve our unique individual selves.

True, we form ourselves in response to one another. But if we are constantly interacting, being scrutinized and revealing everything is there not a danger of losing track of where you end and other people begin? This is why most developmental psychologists argue that personal secrecy is a crucial part of human development.

During adolescence, the period when “the self” begins to gel, there is a critical need to be able to start again, to redefine oneself. But to refashion oneself and embark on a new self-definition, it’s necessary to cut loose from the past. That is hard enough to do when only a handful of people have a clear concept of who you “are.” It becomes infinitely more difficult when your more personal feelings, photos and other private data have been circulated to the world.

Privacy is also important to building strong relationships. Many people have worried that social media increases the number of weak ties we all have, at the expense of strong ties. This is a complicated topic, because all strong ties in society begin as weak ones. In theory, if we can expand the number of weak ties we have, this should expand the pool from which strong ties can be formed. However, true intimacy involves the symmetrical sharing of very personal information. We share secrets with close friends, loved ones and those we might come to love.

So what happens when we begin sharing our secrets with everyone? Could this not degrade the value of truly personal information in building intimate relationships? Part of being intimate is the revealing of secrets and being with the person who knows things others do not.

The term “oversharing” has become a popular cultural meme. It refers to the act or practice of sharing too much information, or TMI, with people who have no need, or are not necessarily prepared or qualified to receive it. Telling a co-worker that you went to the doctor is sharing pertinent information. Telling him or her that you had your hemorrhoids treated is probably oversharing.

The term is pejorative. If you overshare, it can hurt your relationships with others, as much as being rude can.

“Some oversharing is the result of a poorly developed social filter or shut up button” says The WiseGeek blog. “Different people may have different ideas over what constitutes oversharing or TMI, so they may not realize they are making others feel uncomfortable. Once the oversharing line has been crossed, it is often difficult to erase those images from others’ minds.”

Because of the digital revolution we each need to develop better filters, screens and BS detectors to sort through the information blizzard of daily life. But don’t we also need a sense of propriety and responsibility for the effects of what we communicate to others?

In a simpler time such restraint in social life was called manners. Manners are the largely unwritten, underlying ethical codes in society about how we should interact with one other. They have a deep function – to help ensure civility, consideration of others and in some ways civilization itself. Unlike the formal legal system, the punishment for bad manners is social disapproval. Rude people can suffer reputational damage.

Similarly, oversharing can cause reputational damage and hurt relationships. “What’s wrong with that blabbermouth?” “That person is always spilling his guts.” “Why on earth does she think I’d have the slightest interest in that?” “Remind me not to tell him anything confidential.” “I’m afraid he’s just an open book.” “She doesn’t know how to keep a secret.” “What ever happened to discretion?”

Manners change, of course. In the past it would be inappropriate to meet someone without a letter of introduction. But as the LinkedIn referral system shows, some manners encode deeply held norms about human behavior and protocol. They help us to be not just civil but productive as well.

Further, when we share information, we need to be considerate of the interests of related parties. Many young people I’ve talked to have a rule about parties – no tagging of photos without permission. Plan on publishing your personal genome? You might want to discuss that with your children first, as you’re essentially communicating very personal information about them.

Personal reputation management is a new challenge of the digital age. Erving Goffman’s seminal 1959 text, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, needs an update. Goffman used the metaphor of the theater to portray the importance of human – namely, social – action. An actor performs in a setting that is constructed of a stage and a backstage. The props in either part of the setting direct his action. He is being watched by an audience, but at the same time he is an audience for his viewers’ play. Actors strive to be coherent and adjust to the different settings offered them mainly through interaction with other actors, all of whom are attempting to perform in a way that reflects well on themselves.

When Goffman was making his observations in the 1950s, the stage upon which we presented ourselves to others was pretty limited, and it was a physical place, involving face-to-face contact. Today our tweets, Facebook updates, emails, texts, photos, even the places we visit all become public. The number of actors on the stage and the audience have grown exponentially.

PHOTO: A monitoring camera observes Frankfurt Airport, March 3, 2011. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski


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Please see my original post on this topic.

Posted by DonTapscott | Report as abusive

“Yes, likely someday there will be norms, laws and practices governing the responsible use of all this data. But practically, these do not exist today.” – This is exactly why the World Economic Forum and BCG have published a report today calling for the establishment of trading rules for personal data focusing on 1) Securing the data itself from breach; 2) Establishing rights and responsibilities for using data based on context and 3) Developing accountability and enforcement mechanisms that hold organisations to account. It will be complicated because personal data is after all personal. But we need to work together to try and establish such trading rules to build trust – because without them we are heading down a slippery path. ta-needs-clear-trading-rules/ ails.aspx?id=tcm:12-105524

Posted by carlkalapesi | Report as abusive

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Don Tapscott, all very interesting but what is your point?

Because of the amorality of information collectors, aggregators, data miners and data speculators, companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, governments, employers and others CAN NEVER BE TRUSTED.

The onus of protecting our privacy starts with us.

My solution: I do not have Facebook and don’t feel the loss. I do not wish them well. It’s a very shallow venue.

Employers should be barred by law from asking for social media profiles and passwords. It’s none of their business.

I lie about my birthdate, my name, my annual income and other personal identifiers in registering for almost all web sites which require that information. To keep the lies straight, I have my password book.

Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law or public opinion.

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[…] big data | privacy | social media 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. Part one can be read here, and part two here. […]

Posted by How to resist Big Brother 2.0 | The Great Debate | Report as abusive

As the old saying goes, ‘idle brain is a devil’s workshop’, Facebook is home for majority of all those idle brains. Honestly speaking.

Posted by maGiK | Report as abusive

The answer is simple: Stay off-line.

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The popular media lives of the stuff that the more finicky may find repulsive and TMI.
And not just the tabloid press loves to rake muck and talk about the hemorrhoids. It had its effect on the general population. And I suppose, those who claim they don’t like TMI can suck up the garbage of popular gossip like it was mother’s milk. I’ve seen enough old timer movies to know that polite appearances don’t often match reality. I’ve seen enough life (probably thanks to the media) and some s personal experience to know that disjunction still lives.

Mr. Tapscott, You leave out the possibility that TMI might be a kind of barely understood rebellion against the prospect of being “found out”. It would be similar to the dandies of Beau Brummel’s era who purposely acted even more elitist in reaction to the popular discontent of the French Revolution. Someone I read once characterized it as “snapping their fingers” at the age.

In other words: be open and shameless before someone tries to impose their notions of shamefulness on you. Or throw the “dirt” in their faces before someone attempts to threaten you with it. Manners are inherent covers for hypocrisy. That is rock bottom what it tends to devolve into. Society needs enormous doses of shame to control it’s victims. Many people may have no use for the disembodied and very selective courtesy of the well mannered and discrete. If it’s been on the screen and the TV – why bother to feel shame?

People who appear in the major media sometimes have to bow to viscous attacks on things they inadvertently said and make apologies for their statements. I know I am very indiscreet with my speech sometimes because I really have no respect whatsoever for the codification of manners. They were never that profound, reliable or even sensible.

The trouble with those old “Miss Manners” columns was they tended to be written for middle and upper income people and catered to women. They were always so tiny minded somehow.

In the 60s they were irrelevant for my generation (the boomers) but they tried to be more relevant in the 70s. But they had to acknowledge the messy facts of life and the manners aspect started to look like an archaic issue: rather like worrying about the place settings while the Titanic was sinking.

Social expectations and good behavior in social settings requires stable societies with long term residents who understand the social codes. And those old codified societies could be merciless and have longer memories than elephants. So many people in the US and elsewhere don’t stay put and the social expectations are not uniform throughout the world and many people may simply not care what the society thinks about them because they don’t really see it except in their friends.

I think it would be a hell on earth to see the resurgence of vain, pampered old bags like the old MS Astor try to rule the social roost again. Not even her piers could stand her pretensions after a while.

The reality of life was always messy and impolite. The people who seem to think there are good manners must have very long memories and are probably dieing like flies now. But it should be remembered that even the NAZI regime knew how to be discrete (obviously) and some of them could have impeccable manners.

Some people can be too d–d squeamish and want to think the world is a pretty garden all the time. It’s obviously anything but.

Mmanners are fundamentally about social control and had their fullest development in the era of Absulotism. That control can be in the hands of swine with the loveliest manners and whitest teeth.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

The advancement of privacy norms and legal rights have historically been consequences of widespread privacy harms. Think of transparency, accountability, access, and correction rights following abuses of secret dossiers maintained by governments and early credit reporting agencies, for example.

Far be it for me to hope for a “privacy chernobyl” or “data valdez” to mobilize a sufficient percentage of the public to act and to demand change, but such are the kind of scenarios that do seem to be effective.

The next frontier, in my opinion, will be individual access. If there is a simple and effective way for people to find out what information is being collected about them, and how that information is being used, then they will be empowered and motivated to hold those organziations more accountable for their actions.

Wouldn’t you like to know when and why government or law enforcement authorities have surveilled you, or what online advertisers have collected about you? Who has accessed your medical files and why? Empower citizens with real access and redress rights and watch society be transormed by new privacy norms and more accountable behaviour on the part of the data collectors and aggregators that are watching us more and more.

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