Understanding The Importance of Privacy in The Networked World
“Privacy is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or information about themselves and thereby reveal themselves selectively.”
That is the definition offered by Wikipedia, and it makes sense. Privacy is all about concealment of information about an individual or a group, and the ability to control what of it to reveal and what to keep private.
Privacy has been a big topic as of late, which is unsurprising considering that we are living in an age of information; the time when access and sharing of information is easier than ever. This fact has enabled a kind of leakage of privacy; more and more of what used to be considered private is being shared with the world, or is much easier to obtain, even without your knowledge or against your will, than ever before.
Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has famously stated that his vision is to make the world more open, and that’s precisely what is happening. Through platforms such as Facebook and Twitter people are opening up to each other and the world more than ever. Everybody has something about themselves to say, and they seem quite eager to put it out there.
By itself this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. To some extent it does allow us to get closer to each other, and most of all it helps us break old taboos and identify with each other more easily.
Furthermore, privacy is intimately linked with the freedom to choose for yourself. This is why it doesn’t make sense to think of privacy as a right in and of itself. It is simply an extension of a more fundamental freedom of choice, or the freedom to govern your own life.
This is also the reason why the value of privacy is relative. An individual should be free to reveal or conceal as much or as little about themselves as they wish. If more people voluntarily share more about themselves, this fact alone doesn’t then necessarily represent any kind of a social problem. Of course, it is still possible for people to make arguably bad choices, but those are still their choices to make.The important thing is to promote personal responsibility, without demanding that some be responsible for the choices of others.
Why is Privacy Important at all?
Why do we ever choose to conceal anything about ourselves? The easy and most often thrown around argument for the importance of privacy is to ask a few rhetorical questions. “Would you want everyone to know exactly where you live?” “How about everyone knowing about the million dollar idea you are working on?” “Would you be comfortable about everyone knowing that you visit a strip bar every weekend, and strip?”
But this type of argument simply piggy backs on our fears and insecurities. It simply references the cultural norms as they exist. It doesn’t explain why do these norms exist to begin with.
So why is the answer to most of these questions typically “no”? I’d say it all comes down to two things:
1. Personal value, and how much of it are you willing to give away. Your value isn’t just up to you, but up to the evaluations of other people. They are the ones who will either value you highly or give you low value.
There are two ways in which you can reduce your value by revealing too much about yourself.
A.) One rests on the fact that things which are scarce tend to have greater value, and things that are abundant are a cheap commodity. If you eagerly reveal everything about you the access to information about you is a cheap commodity; you’re selling yourself short.
B.) Second way rests on the content of what you reveal about yourself. It could be something that others would judge negatively, and consequently give you lower value. This isn’t always fair, in so far as many of people’s judgments are irrational and based on social stereotypes born out of other social illnesses, but it is what it is. Revealing certain things about you may lower you in other people’s eyes, and we typically do not want that, so we choose to keep such things private.
2. Security is another reason we want to keep some things private. When we are reasonably sure there are some people out there who would want to harm us, and certain pieces of information about us makes it easier for them to do so, it makes sense to want to keep such information private. This is where there is a fine line between reasonable concern for security, and paranoia, but it is arguable where does this line lie. All I know is that everyone should be free to choose for themselves how “paranoid” they want to be.
Unfortunately, our own governments tend to be among the top concerns when it comes to preserving privacy for the sake of security. Laws are far from perfect, and politicians often corrupt. In democracy more of our lives is being regulated than ever before, and a lot of it includes things that really shouldn’t be anybody’s business. Someone, or some interest group, simply thought it would be a good idea to impose their own preferences on how life should be lived to the lives of other people, who may disagree.
And is there any better proof of how relative laws are to actual right or wrong doings than the fact that different countries have different laws? You move, and all of a sudden what was perfectly fine can now land you in a world of trouble.
Given these facts it is hard not to take governments into account as threats to your security, and care to protect your life from their prying eyes and controlling souls.
The Effect of The Networked World on Maintaining Privacy
I already mentioned that life in an information age makes it easier than ever to access or share private information, and that a lot more is indeed being shared and disseminated. Let’s go into just a little more detail about how this happens, because it is important to realise all the ways in which your privacy could be compromised. Knowledge is power.
Our world today is a network. It is a social network, and it is a technological network. The effects of such a networked world on privacy is both social and technological (or practical).
The Social Effect
The fact that it is easier means more people will share. Just as much, the fact that it is easier means more people will seek to access, even that which they aren’t allowed to access. Because it is easier people build businesses that encourage more sharing. The result is a culture in which the average threshold of what is typically private is lowered, and a culture in which everyone shares more eagerly. At some point people begin sharing more because others share more, so the effect feeds on itself.
Of course, Facebook is a perfect example of this effect. While not everything you share on Facebook is strictly private information, the whole concept of it being a place for friends to socialize and share with each other very easily brings out from people the urge to say something they otherwise probably wouldn’t say in front of many people.
And it is also in Facebook’s interest to incentivise people to share more about themselves. All this information is valuable content that makes Facebook a more interesting place for others to hang out at, but also gives Facebook more “intelligence” about you so they can show you ads that you might actually be interested in seeing!
So the social effect is simply about the ease of sharing private data breaking a certain psychological resistance to sharing until we created a culture in which more sharing is now a norm. Businesses, as they are expected to, capitalised on this revolution. So did governments, whom can compell these businesses to provide them access to all this private data when they think they have something to accuse you of.
The Technological Effect
Since so much of our communications and data goes through digital channels that involve many computers on the network with different owners new opportunities were opened for eavesdropping. If data is not encrypted it can theoretically be read by anyone who can intercept the data stream. In other words, the technological effect is behind the social effect. It is what makes it easier to access and share data, the fact that it is digital, and easy to transmit, copy, and intercept.
That’s the basic technological effect, but it can manifest itself in many forms. For instance the Chrome web browser’s omnibar pretty much acts as a keylogger as it records and sends over the network every letter you type in as you visit various web addresses or type search queries. It has to do this in order to provide instant as-you-type results.
That also represents a commonly made trade off between convenience and privacy. Sometimes sharing or giving up more enables greater convenience. In this case it enables instant search results at the cost of everything you type in being sent to Google. Whether Google will use this data indescreetly is a different matter, and dependent on their policies.
False Privacy Violations vs. True Privacy Violations
One misconception is worth clearing up when it comes to the issue of privacy violations. There are many people out there who casually accuse companies of violating their privacy just because something they shared can be accessed by certain parties or the public. Sometimes they call for government to get involved by forcing these companies to change their policies and practices. Yet often the issue is their own ignorance or past choices. If you share something publically, for example, while having the ability to restrict access, you can hardly blame the company for what you did. It simply facilitated the interaction.
The real privacy violations have to in some way violate your freedom to choose. When it was your own choices, even bad choices, that caused a compromise of your privacy we cannot reasonably call that a privacy violation.
If you’ve given prior authorization, however, and then regretted it, you can’t call it a violation. This again points to the need for practicing personal responsibility when it comes to managing your privacy.
Privacy as a Conscious Choice
So far we’ve established what is privacy, why does it ever even matter, how does our world as a network affect it, and what can we call a violation of privacy. These represent the reality we are living in, and provide you with the information you can use to decide whether to care or not. Managing your own privacy is a conscious choice, and you can choose to either ignore the issue and accept the risks, or choose to be more proactive in managing and protecting your privacy.
The important thing to note is that complete privacy and security will require a complete dedication to protection. As some examples of privacy violations shown you can secure some channels of communication but not others, and still end up blown out into the open. You could also end up using outdated and ineffective methods of protection without realising you’re actually not safe at all.
So to some extent we either have to go all the way in diligently ensuring our privacy is protected or might as well just drop the issue and not care at all. The middle way is, basically, a compromise.
The choice is yours, and completely dependent on your own values. Nobody should judge you regardless of what you choose. If you choose to ignore the issue, but remain fully aware of and accepting of the risks, it is your responsible choice to make. The irresponsible thing would be to ignore the issue, but then going beserk when something bad actually does happen.
If you choose to proactively protect your privacy nobody has a reasonable basis to conclude you’ve got something malicious or criminal to hide. As we’ve seen above malicious activity is far from the only reason someone would want to protect their privacy. Of course, it is also to some extent true that different people, even different governments, have different definitions of what is malicious or even criminal.
Two Ways of Ensuring Privacy: Legal vs. Technological
If you chose to proactively protect your privacy there are two ways to rely on, but one of them is likely going to be almost completely ineffective.
The legal way is about relying on the protection of law, essentially entrusting some or all of your privacy to the government. The law can dictate who or what may or may not access certain information about you, and what they may or may not do with it if they do get access.
Unfortunately laws can change, and who changes them wont always have your best interests or even common sense and basic ethics in mind. Furthermore, laws also depend on those relative definitions of what is right and wrong, and the privacy policies it puts in place are dependent on those definitions. Besides, governments actually have a pretty bad track record of ensuring your privacy and security, and as of late there is little reason to hope that this will improve. If anything, government is increasingly proving to be a major liability to your privacy, not to mention your individual liberty in general, so far from trusting it to manage your privacy and your rights, it actually became the one you’d want to protect yourself from.
The second way of ensuring your privacy is technological. It is about securing your channels of communication and your data through the use of practical technologies. It is about taking control over your own privacy and being very selective about who you trust. Through technological protection of privacy those you choose not to trust should find it impossible to access information about you that you didn’t make accessible.
Some examples of such technologies include various encryption technologies, virtual private networks, proxies, and so on.
Should you choose to take a more proactive role in protecting your privacy Tech-FAQ will be offering a number of informative resources that will help you ensure your own privacy.