Article on Privacy

January 9, 2012 |

A recent opinion piece in the SMH, Privacy is about individual choice, online and off,  is quite thoughtful.

It says:

The New York Time’s Nick Bilton announced recently that “privacy is on its deathbed”. This prediction was prompted by the “creepy” ease with which he hunted down the identity of a girl with not much more than his internet connection, the girl’s first name, a few photos, and a Facebook friend list. In stunned awe of his success at aggregating fragments of data and assembling a profile of the girl, he concluded by citing Federal Trade Commission advice: delete your Facebook account; protect your data. To that, Bilton added the following challenge: “Which one of us is going to do that?”

Yet what may surprise Bilton and others arguing that privacy is in terminal decline is the fact that many of us already guard our privacy online. For example, the results of an Asia Pacific Privacy Authority social media survey released last month revealed that most of us know how to use a site’s privacy settings. In fact, nine out of ten of us have actually changed a site’s privacy settings. Most of us only share information with people we know and only a few of us are concerned about how our information might be used by third parties. Were our information to be used in a way we had not expected, almost half of us would react rationally and deliberate whether to continue or to stop using the site altogether, before doing anything rash such as immediately deleting a Facebook account.

We would no more retreat from Facebook than we would from family and friends on the basis that we might be subject to gossip.

While emerging technologies have radically increased the speed ease, magnitude, and ability to harvest and share personal information, consider what levels of control this technology offers.

Once we are tagged in a photo on Facebook, we are immediately alerted to the fact and, once alerted, we have a couple of choices — not ideal, but near enough. One, we can refuse the tag. Two, we can ask the person to remove the photograph.

What is evident here is that we are exercising a choice: whether to refuse to share information about ourselves or whether we would rather participate in the network, so to speak. We already share information with others, it’s called socialising, and we don’t undertake a risk analysis every time we open our mouths.

A perfect state of privacy is impossible. It is not only impossible; it is undesirable. We want to live in world in which we can share our lives with other well-meaning family members, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, fellow hobbyists, and so on. We are social beings, and participating in social networks (online and off) is part of what makes our lives meaningful.

In order to enrich our social experience, we consensually share much of our personal information. We do this even when we do not fully understand what happens to our information. We do this even when we risk third-party access to our data.

But this does not mean that privacy is dead. This type of exhortation has been made every time innovations have forced us to reassess our society.

Newspapers in the 1890s brought society gossip and photos to the masses; in the 1970s came database technologies; and, of course, now the internet.

Over the years, when a new challenge threatens our privacy, we respond with an examination of the ethical and legal implications. We make moral demands.

We legislate measures that will ensure our rights are protected. Sometimes we do this only after we have already been harmed — the technology evolves so quickly, and it is difficult to keep up. Despite the difficulties, however, we ought never retreat in fear, and those who write to inform us should never use their media muscle to inflame that fear. Who are the likes of Bilton trying to scare?

If it isn’t fear then it is apathy. Not that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was right when he proclaimed that we don’t care about privacy at all; that it’s no longer the “social norm”. While we may have redrawn the boundaries between the private and public spheres, and, yes, while it is also hard to define exactly what we mean by privacy these days, the concept of privacy does still matter.

More than that, privacy lives on because, without it, we could be unable to live as we do today. According to late 20th-century contemporary theorists such as James Rachels, Ruth Gavison, and Jean L. Cohen, privacy is still important to us. It gives us a sense of autonomy and freedom when we are able to control what others can come to know about us. It preserves our human dignity and sustains intimacy and variety in our relationships: allowing us to share share certain information which confers intimacy. Imagine trying to maintain a diversity of relationships if everyone had equal access to the most intimate details of our lives.

But everyone involved needs to take responsibility: Facebook ought to see us users as autonomous and rational creatures who like to be kept in the loop; Facebook users ought to respect the information shared and be mutually committed to presenting our best selves online; and third-parties ought to take care with the information we offer them in trust. Finally, an independent party ought to keep a watchful, though not censorial, eye over us all and make sure that our best interests are always protected, without, of course, restricting our freedom.

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