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Are Expectations of Privacy Age-Related?

Posted by Russell Jones on Jul 1, 2008

An interesting split is becoming obvious in computing today; older people (among them those who were instrumental in empowering computing and the modern web), are increasingly worried about privacy, while younger people (those who've been exposed both to the weband on it—for most of their lives) seem to be far less interested in privacy issues, tending to view the web as a vehicle for social interaction, even if that social interaction involves losing control of their personal privacy altogether.

This emerging difference becomes glaringly clear in the brief comments in this TechnologyReview.com article. For example, Mena Trott, president and cofounder of Six Apart in San Francisco, says: "With the popularity of blogging and online video and photo sharing, we already know that people want to publish significant portions of their lives online. In 10 years, I can easily see someone putting 75 percent of their day online. But it won't all be public."

In contrast, Bjarne Stroustrup, Professor at Texas A&M University and designer of the C++ programming language, says that within five or ten years we can expect "The total end of privacy. Governments, politicians, criminals, and friends will trawl through years of accumulated data (ours and what others collected) with unbelievably sophisticated tools. Obscurity and time passed will no longer be covers."



Even Richard Stallman, the foremost advocate of open source, isn't really interested in open-sourcing people's private data, saying: "I see a danger in the Web today: doing your computing on servers running software you can't change or study, and entrusting your data to U.S. companies required to give it to Big Brother without even a search warrant. Don't risk this practice!"

The problem, as I suspect many older people see it, is that collusion between businesses (those license agreements that give businesses the right to have "associated businesses" access your data) and between businesses and government effectively makes a lie out of assurances such as Trott's that "it won't be all public." The opposite of public is "private," but what is private when ISPs and governments can search through every request, every post, every email, every IM transmission, and every digital phone conversation you have? Is it private just because your neighbors and friends can't see it? Ben Franklin wrote: "Three may keep a secret, if two are dead." That statement's just as true today as it was when Franklin wrote it. Do you really trust people with your private information? If so, why? People with access to secrets not only tend to misuse them, but also share them with others. Even at the business level, recent research suggests that a large number of those with access (network administrators) look at information they're not supposed to be viewing.

It's bad enough when you first truly understand that your recent data is not private. But now, imagine a world in which every faux pas you've ever committed can be discovered, resurrected and perhaps used against you.

Remember when you once posted those pictures of you at that graduation party in Maui? Now you're applying for a job at a company owned by a conservative Christian business network. Too bad. Rejected.

Remember that IM conversation you and your buddy had one evening about your career choices, where you said you never wanted to get put into the position of having to fire large numbers of employees? Now you're up for a promotion, but you have to be willing to wield the corporate axe. Oops, guess you won't get it.

The plain and simple fact is that there is no real privacy in digital data. There never was any complete and total privacy, of course, but there was a strong probability of privacy, because private data was difficult to access and search. Most paper-based data was filed in a single location, and access was typically restricted to people with good reasons to look. Even published information reached only subscribers, or those willing to spend the time manually scanning library copies. Moreover, much private data simply disappeared after a period of time. Records of childhood legal infractions were sealed. Financial records were destroyed after seven years. People threw away letters when you were no longer a part of their lives. And some communications were too difficult to monitor. Phone calls from public telephones were essentially anonymous. Conversations with a journalist were once considered unassailably private. None of that is true any longer—Stroustrup is correct in saying that obscurity and time passed will no longer be covers. The things you say, the places you go, the items you buy, the food you eat, the pages you visit—these combine to create an electronic trail that employers, governments, businesses, or any sufficiently interested and well-financed person can use to discover things about you that you might not want known.

When confronted with this fact, the enemies of privacy typically argue that there's no reason to hide anything you've done unless you've done something wrong that others should know about; that hiding information is tantamount to lying, and that in this age of terrorism, everyone has a right to know everything about you, particularly your government. That argument should sound familiar to those who remember the 1950's witchhunts.

But being able to outlast every tiny personal truth gives you the ability to become the person you'd like to be, rather than the person you were in the past. Americans have long believed in (or at least given lip service to) second chances. We love hearing about the gang member who gets his GED in prison, and goes on to become a successful business executive. We love stories about the prostitute with a heart of gold who marries the millionaire.

Conversely, the inability to obscure every tiny personal fact can make you now and forever the least appealing person you've ever been. The one who gave into temptation, who stole, lied, cheated—who failed in some way, perhaps even in a way that, at the time, wasn't considered a failure. For example, you might have voted for the "wrong" person for President, and mentioned it to your mother in an email, or written it proudly on your FaceBook page. A partisan administration might hold that against you.

On the other hand, perhaps most humans can see beyond the peccadilloes of people's pasts—particularly when their own mistakes are equally open to scrutiny. Perhaps the stigma of indiscretions currently held private will disappear, when it's no longer possible to hide them. Perhaps the total honesty engendered by "life searching" will create better, or at least more tolerant people. (I'm skeptical myself, but one can always hope.)

So is this generational divide in the approach to privacy due to accumulated wisdom, or is it due to aging pessimism? What do you think?

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privacy


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