Privacy starts when you take responsibility for it


Privacy has been a hot topic since the social web began to take shape. It has become more relevant in the last year since the public became more aware of shadowy government surveillance programs which seemingly gather personal information indiscriminately. As much as we believe we know, we simply don’t know who is monitoring our communications and our activities or to what extent. This may leave you with the sense that you have no control over your personal information and no choice but to submit to others’ decisions about how much of your privacy should be respected. Fortunately, you do have options and taking advantage of those options begins with something that few people are willing to do: take responsibility for your choices.

If you are concerned about your privacy, in any way, you have a responsibility to safeguard it. Privacy, as secrecy, is disappearing due to increased public and private surveillance and the choices you make every day whether you are conscious of them or not. It’s important to realise that you are not just being watched by various governments but also by the private organisations you interact with in some form or another as you go about your daily life.

You give up your privacy too readily fully opportunity to use online social services. You probably do this for one of three reasons:

  1. You don’t understand how to protect yourself better;
  2. You are generally apathetic about your privacy and don’t believe you have anything to hide;
  3. You have made a conscious choice to be more public about your life than most people would choose to be.

Choosing to be more public is not a wrong choice as long as it is informed and deliberate. I suppose being apathetic is a choice but the problem with this approach is that you have probably not made an informed choice because you are not concerned enough about the issue to have understood the consequences of your choice. On the other hand, being ignorant of how to protect yourself better is the challenge you can meet with more information. Unfortunately, companies like Facebook and Google presents us with an array of privacy controls, apparently to assist us while really confusing us with their complexity.

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One important question is when you have a “legitimate expectation of privacy”? This question is your starting point for distinguishing between those aspects of your life which are open to public scrutiny and which you can protect. Your legitimate expectation of privacy has two components. The first component is your subjective expectation of privacy. In other words, what do you think should be private and respected as such? The second component is what our society recognises as objectively reasonable? An example of this would be you taking a walk in a public area wearing a pair of pink bunny slippers and a member of the public, finding this amusing, takes a photo and publishes it to Twitter. You may be deeply offended because your footwear choice, on that day, was deeply personal and not for public consumption. Unfortunately for you, our societal norm is that your outfit can become public knowledge if you share it in public.

This basic idea applies to the social web. When you share details of your life publicly on Facebook, Twitter or any other social media service, you really can’t complain if members of the public become aware of it and share it amongst themselves. Of course, once you have shared something publicly online, you no longer have control over it.

I am still amazed that people are outraged when a service like Facebook exposes your personal information in ways you didn’t anticipate and which are covered by its privacy policy. It is almost as if Facebook’s users still believe that whatever they share on Facebook remains on Facebook and should only be made available to some limited group of people. To an extent that may be a reasonable belief if you choose to share using limited sharing mechanisms like Lists, Circles or groups but don’t count on that to protect you. If Facebook shares something you considered private in a manner that is consistent with its Data Use Policy, you have only yourself to blame. You accepted the privacy policy and that it can be updated (even though you probably didn’t read it) and that means you gave your consent to whatever Facebook is doing.

Something else to bear in mind is that your choices about what to share with whom can also affect others who may prefer to remain more private. Tagging and referencing your connections online can have serious consequences for them which you may not even be aware of. Bobbi Duncan realised this awful truth when the president of the University of Texas’ Queer Chorus added her to the ensemble’s Facebook group in 2012. Although she had taken considerable care to customise her privacy controls to limit who could see her updates, being added to the group resulted in an update being published to her Timeline automatically which outed her to her homophobic father. The group’s publicity settings overrode her deliberate privacy choices and turned her life upside down. This wasn’t a bug, it was a choice Facebook made about publicising which groups users join (or added to without their knowledge).

If this sort of thing concerns you, you have some control over who can tag you, add you to social groups or otherwise share details of your life but not many. Most social services online are optimised for publicity, it is better business. Respecting your privacy has not been particularly profitable so it all comes back to you and the choices you make. Are you going to take responsibility for those choices or wait for the next controversy, throw your hands up in despair and tweet your outrage?

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