Sunday, January 16, 2011

Privacy and transparency go hand in hand

Eric Schmidt's claim that "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place" demonstrates not only an ignorance toward privacy issues on the internet, but also a flippant insensitivity that's disappointing as CEO of a company who believes that you should "focus on the user and all else will follow" (not to mention their informal corporate slogan, "don't be evil"). In a speech addressing the current state of privacy on the internet, Danah Boyd implored parents to approach their children with an understanding attitude about the dangers of social media, creating a dialog rather than banning these potentially useful tools outright. Schmidt comes across as the reactionary parent who permits their child to use social media on the condition that they never make a mistake. But as Boyd also outlines, privacy issues like the need to hide one's location from an abusive father aren't simple issues of choice. Schmidt refers to things we don't want "anyone" to know, but privacy is more often an issue of controlling who can and cannot gain access to the various elements of our lives. As various writers have suggested, privacy is a manifold idea that encompasses issues like self esteem, physical protection, and the ability to uphold relationships. While it's an ever-shifting term that few can agree on, and who some insist is a useless front-end term for various other rights, it's rarely the case that people want to make their actions entirely private or entirely public. Privacy is not, as Boyd says, a binary value.

Government intrusion isn't the only threat to privacy these days. The architecture of the internet has a huge effect. Web 2.0, as defined by O'Reilly, includes the concept of the "perpetual beta." This means the prevalence of sites that are constantly evolving and improving with user feedback. Privacy is also a shifting and dynamic idea that (according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) may even depend on concepts as tenuous as culture. These sites are better equipped to handle privacy settings in a way that accommodates changing individualized needs. And since the sites that listen to their users tend to be the most successful, we can be assured more privacy. Yet the stakes are higher than ever, as these Web 2.0 sites also rely on crowd sourcing and leveraging their user base to expand. This means users are giving away more data, and the competition for that data is getting fiercer. Some have emphatically stated the need to keep external bodies like government out of our internet, but I think internal sources - the companies keeping our data - should be of equal concern. The problem is largely an issue of transparency. Many users are deeply unaware of what's done with their data once it gets entered. Controls may be overcomplicated, leading to mistakes. Sites like YourOpenBook expose data that people may not know is public (try typing in "my social security number is" for a fun surprise).

With so much of our data out there, things can get confusing.

It's an exciting time for communication, and there's no doubt that sharing our information through the internet has enhanced our lives in some ways. Josh Harris' prediction, as seen in the 2009 documentary We Live in Public, was that people's craving for exposure and recognition would lead to an online information society where the key mode of validation is the most page hits or friend requests. His experiments are fascinating, but he fails in his extremity to realize that even exhibitionists control their image to some degree, and our public version of ourselves is often a different and more finely tuned one than our private version. I think nearly everyone behaves differently in different groups, even among the closest of friends; I would argue everyone has many versions of themselves, each of which has been carefully refined to match the interests of who they are interacting with. Being genuine doesn't mean acting the same around everyone; adapting is human nature, and it's to our best advantage. This is the nature of privacy. This is also the nature of secrecy. Both describe the same intent, whether for malicious reasons or not. Regardless, there are so many benign reasons for privacy that we can't let its protection be outweighed by the need to expose people who are hiding malicious secrets. The stakes may not seem high now, but how long before people start managing really sensitive information - like their finances - on Facebook?

Overall, Vannevar Bush certainly predicted one of the chief uses of the internet in his 1945 piece As We May Think in saying: "man's spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems." Yet it's that permanence of data (which, it turns out, is hard to get rid of) that makes it a danger for privacy. Something we may feel totally comfortable sharing with the world now could become embarrassing or threatening to our livelihood (such as the ability to get a job) later on. The original purpose of the internet as envisioned by the RAND corporation was to create a decentralized, rugged network that could survive even nuclear attack. The internet we know now certainly follows that principle, and our data too is getting spread around and made all the more permanent because there's no single point of removal should we want it removed. What we need moving forward is more transparency from corporations storing our data. We need to foster a corporate culture of communication and openness with users, allowing them control over what is done with their information. That's not enough, though. As evidenced by the Facebook privacy settings bait-and-switch described by Boyd, a lot of users have control over their privacy, but they're not aware of it. User education also needs to be a high priority task. We need to ask ourselves: how can we educate users better? How can we make data storage more transparent without inundating users with details? As services that use our information continue to expand, let's remember to keep a wary eye on the corporations that are managing it.

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