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Why I'm Not Crying Over Lost Internet Privacy

Posted by Robin 'Roblimo' Miller on Aug 11, 2010

We had privacy for three generations. Maybe four. Now, what with Facebook and Google and data mining, it's going away again. But that's OK. We humans did fine for thousands of generations without privacy, and doing without it for another few thousand generations probably won't hurt us, either.

Groups like EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) and the EFF
(Electronic Frontier Foundation) spend a lot of time worrying about our online privacy. But privacy -- and lack of privacy -- isn't necessarily an online thing. Just today my wife heard, from Karen, who heard it from someone else, that our former neighbor Jackie is going to lose her house to foreclosure. This information was passed in a quaint manner called "face to face," which is how information about friends, family and neighbors (often called "gossip") was passed in pre-Internet and even pre-telephone days.

My friend Norm's grandparents came to Florida from Sicily. There, he says, "They all lived on farms or in small villages. They didn't need Facebook. They had old Italian grandmothers who knew everything about everybody. Gossip was their primary form of recreation."

My forebears, who mostly came from small villages in Russia, had old Jewish grandmothers who kept an eye on everyone and everything. And my wife was raised by Black women who knew everything that was going on in their Baltimore neighborhood.

So some of us never had any privacy at all, while some only had it for a few generations if we happened to live in urban or suburban environments where we barely knew our neighbors.

Basic rules for safeguarding your privacy

If you don't want people to know your business, don't tell them about it. This is the most basic privacy dictum possible. In an online world, it means you should never assume anything you post, anywhere, is private. If you're married, and you somehow manage to get married again without benefit of a divorce, you should not post pictures of your second wedding -- at Disney World, no less -- on Facebook.

You shouldn't post pictures of you smoking a huge joint or pouring beer over yourself, either. Back in the old days, would you have done that stuff in front of the old ladies in your village or neighborhood? No way! So why are you doing it on Facebook? Or MySpace? Or YouTube? You think there are no old people (like your mom and dad) checking your Facebook wall?

Trust me: We parents and grandparents know what you post on Facebook.
Even if you think it's all private, it really isn't. Your most embarrassing photo was reposted by someone else. We can see it even if you changed your privacy settings. And so can potential bosses, not only today but future ones who may be considering you for responsible management positions, not for work as a part-time cocktail waitress.

Your financial trail

I bought a fifth of bourbon and a fifth of Marsala cooking wine today at a local liquor store. I don't care who knows this, which is a good thing since I paid with my debit card. If I didn't want anyone to know I was buying booze, I would have paid cash.

And if I want to hide my online purchases, I'll use a "no tell" Visa card, and I'll pay cash for it at the drugstore or another anonymous, high-volume retailer. I will not use my normal credit union Visa debit card that has my name on it.

Same rules as the old days, really

Back when grandmothers sitting on rowhouse stoops or meeting at the village water pump were the main community information source, it made sense to do your fooling around out of town, quietly, without telling anyone there your real name or where you came from.

Back in the old days, a song made the rounds called "What Was Your Name in the States" about the assumption that many people who showed up in San Francisco and Tucson and other wild and wooly western towns had criminal backgrounds back east from which they were fleeing.

Today, someone who wants to build a new identity might need to go as far as Thailand or Kenya (two places where people I know personally have started new lives), but it can be done.

But if you go to this level of extreme identity-hiding, whatever else you do, DO NOT post your new name and address on your old Facebook account.

I don't care what Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg or anyone else says about online privacy: as far as I'm concerned, anything you post on any Web site or send to any email
group is public information no matter what their privacy policy says.




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