Can we retain privacy in the era of Big Data?
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