Privacy Attitudes

One of the problems faced by researchers working with privacy is the fundamental question of why people do not care about privacy? It is easy to see either from studies or by simply looking at peopleâ??s behaviour that privacy is not a big thing for many people.

Oh course if you were to ask the question: Is you privacy important to you? Then most people would reply that their privacy was important. But if we look at the way in which people act with their privacy then we get the real picture. There is a radical difference between the way in which people want to be perceived (i.e. privacy conscious) and the way in which they act.

What does this mean? Well some of the discrepancy between the peopleâ??s theoretical and real standpoints can be explained by the lack of knowledge and awareness of the privacy threats. So for example, it is difficult to blame people for being unconcerned with their privacy simply because they us gmail or similar services.

A similar argument can be made to cover those who have no choice but to use less private alternatives. But wait! before you begin to argue that there is always a choice not to use the technology at all, I want to point out being a Luddite is not an option for many people and neither is it for you, considering where you got a hold of this text.

Why is peopleâ??s perception of privacy a problem? Well if we argue the right to privacy (and I often do) then the fact that people do not care about privacy makes this a problem. Can there be a human right if it is unwanted? For a long time I used the smoker analogy.

Smokers want to be healthy but still do not quit smoking despite all the information available. This is not meant to be understood as smokers do not want to be healthy, nor does it invalidate their right to healthcare. The problem with privacy however is that either you have it or you donâ??t.

Recently Paul Saffo wrote about the online habits of the young be warning them that they will come to regret their openness and online presences:

Which is why I pity teens today, for in a few decades their sophomoric musings will deliver a vast embarrassment utterly unknown to earlier generations. It is not that their words are any sillier than earlier generations; rather teens today have had the misfortune of being the first generation to record their thoughts in cyberspace where those thoughts will remain perfectly preserved until some wag drags them out at a school reunion or the authorâ??s children discover the IM affections that passed between mom and dad.

Saffo’s post seems to come as a reaction to (or proof of concept) the peice by Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker “Kids, the Internet, and the End of Privacy: The Greatest Generation Gap Since Rock and Roll“.

Basically people (many of them young – but by no means all) are putting their lives online – innermost thoughts, bad poetry, homespun politics, private erotica and everything else that was previously covered by privacy. Add to this the number of cameras and videos that surround us – almost one in every pocket. We have a situation where every embarassing situation is recorded and transmitted to the rest of the disinterested world. The material is also stored away for no reason to resurface at a later date – even though I think most of it will be lost on trashed computers long before the future.

So the concern is: children doing things today with technology will live to regret it later.  And it will be a lot worse than when “we” were young since there will be texts and photos around to prove it.

I disagree.

The mass of material produced today will sink into obscurity. Yes some material (potentially embarassing) will remain to be found. But this change will not create the scandal that such material cuases today. Finding an embarrasing image from the teenage past of a prominent figure of today is hardly newsworthy – but it is considered to be news. In twenty years it will not even be news.

The self publication of ones teenage life and angst will not create a generation of people neurotic about the fact that someone may remember them or their thoughts, it will create a generation of people who can say that they were teenagers in much the same way as all other teenages were.

What about privacy?

This is not the death of privacy. Privacy is a “floating” value. Ideas of what is, and what should be, private change in culture, time and space. The only shock that we are seeing here is the death of the privacy concept as it has been understood by the “others” or “outsiders” – in other words it is the attempt of those outside the group to dictate norms on those inside the group.

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