I often wonder why people seem to give away their privacy so readily. And I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that privacy is a hugely complex topic, where there are no easy answers to any of the fundamental questions that one might ask.
So what follows are a few random thoughts
Firstly, it’s a question of invisibility. Data about all of us is being collected all the time, but we don’t notice that it is happening because for the most part it is being done invisibily. And even if we have a vague feeling that our data is being collected, we don’t really have any real sense of what data companies have about us (especially when some of this has been inferred), nor do we know how that data is being used. (Susser 2016) says that “information technology makes social self-authorship invisible and unnecessary, by making it difficult for us to know when others are forming impressions about us, and by providing them with tools for making assumptions about who we are which obviate the need for our involvement in the process”.
Secondly, we don’t truly understand the value of the data that is being collected. How many of us happily use the functionality of Twitter or Facebook to demonstrate that we “like” particular items? Do we stop to think about just how much those “likes” can tell about us? (Kosinski, Stillwell et al. 2013) say that “relatively basic digital records of human behavior can be used to automatically and accurately estimate a wide range of personal attributes that people would typically assume to be private”. They demonstrate this using Facebook Likes, showing how these can be used to automatically and accurately predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes including: sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender.
Thirdly, its contextual. (Wang, Yan et al. 2017) talk of how contextual settings influence the way people manage their privacy saying “we may reveal personal information to a stranger on a plane, which rarely happens in other situations”. (Westin 1967p. 34) says that anonymous relations give rise to what Georg Simmel called the “phenomenon of the stranger”, the person who “often received the most surprising openness – confidences which sometimes have the character of a confessional and which would be carefully withheld from a more closely related person”. In this aspect of anonymity the individual can express himself freely because he knows the stranger will not continue in his life and that, although the stranger may give an objective response to the questions put to him, he is able to exert no authority or restraint over the individual.
Fourthly, there’s the question of “nudge design”. Internet giants deliberately design their interfaces to make people feel as comfortable as possible with sharing their information. How many people, for example, stop to question why a new website that you want to use suggests that you sign in with your Google, Facebook, or Twitter account credentials? When LinkedIn tells people how filling in certain fields on their profile will increase their visibility, do they ever stop to think through the implications? Are they a fortune teller, able to tell all the ways in which the site’s terms and conditions will be changed, eroding their privacy bit by bit?
Fifthly, there’s the reassuring language used. For example, you don’t need to worry about government surveillance and bulk datasets, because its only the metadata. One needs to step back and think of the bigger picture. Its not just the metadata of one individual. Imaging how valuable the metadata of millions of people can be. I always think of metadata in aggregate being as valuable as the content. In many ways one could go further and say that the aggregate metadata is actually even more valuable than the content
A final point relates to the power imbalance of one individual up against internet giants, with all the might, influence and resources that they can muster. Even if one were to seek redress for a privacy harm that you had experienced, is there a means to do so. Wouldn’t the damage done be seen as miniscule, whereas collectively it’s a very different story. Max Schrems has gone to court for the right to bring a class action lawsuit against Facebook. He argues it is vital that the case be treated as a class-action suit. He believes 25,000 individual lawsuits on user privacy would be “impossible” due to the financial burden on users and the inefficiency for judges.
KOSINSKI, M., STILLWELL, D. and GRAEPEL, T., 2013. Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(15), pp. 5802-5805.
SUSSER, D., 2016. Information Privacy and Social Self-Authorship. Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology, .
WANG, L., YAN, J., LIN, J. and CUI, W., 2017. Let the users tell the truth: Self-disclosure intention and self-disclosure honesty in mobile social networking. International Journal of Information Management, 37(1), pp. 1428-1440.
WESTIN, A.F., 1967. Privacy and freedom. (1st ed.). edn. New York: Atheneum.