The issue of privacy has been a public topic for years (even decades). Lately, however, with federal inquisitions and corporate espionage making headlines, it seems to be an even bigger hot-button issue than ever. I’m not talking about security hacks and server breaches, but the intentional collection and recording of our personal information and behaviors. The way this is playing out in the media, you’d think this has most of America grabbing pitchforks and torches right about now.
And yet I wonder how big a deal it really is for end users. After all, not everyone cares if their devices track their whereabouts. (Our own Emily Price even challenged location tracking’s bad rap.) So is it genuinely a big concern for most people, or is the recent buzz just another example of scare-mongering for hype’s sake, just to freak out users and grab pageviews/viewers?
Then there’s the other aspect of the conversation: Should people be concerned? After all, technology really only succeeds when it helps us do things without getting in the way or calling attention to itself, and that requires a certain amount of automation. In other words, it needs to know us so it can serve us. Take that away, and it can stop innovation in its tracks.
But where is the line? How much info is too much? And what will companies do with that data? That’s the stickiest part.
All we really know is that, as time goes on, our tech (and the companies that maintain them) will only know more about us — not less. So we’re at a crossroads right now, with policymakers trying to suss things out.
If you haven’t really thought about it before, now might be a good time to weigh the situation. So let’s get some context for all this.
On the surface of it, the right to privacy looks like a clear-cut concept — people keeping their information and personal habits to themselves, and believing that no one has the right to dig it up and use that without permission. Simple.
When governments spy on everyday people, it’s a clear violation of their rights. We can throw somebody in jail because they’re looking in a neighbor’s window. Heck, even inside families, reading a sibling’s diary is grounds for punishment. And few would argue with any of this.
It’s not that simple when it comes to tech, however. Sure, there often was (and still is) a public outcry when companies mine personal data, and sell or use it in ways that are not clear to the consumer. But — I can’t stress this enough — that’s not true in all cases. When faced with the promise of a sexy new program or feature, many users are quick to click that “I Agree” button in the Terms and Conditions pop-up without even looking at it.
So is it the fault of the user, for not reading the terms? Or the fault of the company, for burying details inside an intimidating vat of legalese? It depends on who you ask, but no matter who’s to blame, there’s no denying the picture that’s starting to emerge: We want higher functionality delivered in ways that are increasingly easier to use. Since that doesn’t magically happen (no matter what any black turtlenecked exec may tell you), companies design applications and platforms that increasingly follow our likes, dislikes, locations, and other habits and behaviors. Then they use that data to provide customized functionality that’s molded to our preferences.
Of course, the other things companies do with that info is pretty suspect. But at the user level, one thing is abundantly clear: In the battle of convenience versus privacy, an awful lot of us are throwing our votes (and dollars) toward convenience. It doesn’t mean sketchy corporate behavior is okay, but it does mean that consumers play a role in this.
Many of us are trading privacy for functionality, whether we know it or not. So now that more of us know, it may be time to ask ourselves, Are we okay with that?
This is the question at the heart of this issue. And interestingly enough, how you answer may be pretty telling. Turns out, your feelings about privacy might be based on more than just your unique personal viewpoint. It could have to do with your age.
Privacy — the domain of “old” people?
I hate to say it, but whenever I see images of senate subcommittees, FCC inquiries or the like, I can’t help but think to myself, “Are these old dudes really the ones determining the fate of our technological futures?” I’ve heard stories about politicians who won’t even email and refuse smartphones, and they’re the ones running these inquiries? How do you make policy around tech when you don’t even use it?
Maybe that’s why some people think older generations are out of touch, with their old-fashioned, even quaint, notions of privacy. (I use the word “older” pretty loosely. It can include anyone from their late 30s and up — basically, people who remember a time before the internet. Like me.) For their part, many “old-timers” believe the younger generation has no concept of privacy, shamelessly divulging intimate details across a variety of media.
I admit these are gross over-generalizations, and I know there are plenty of examples that fall outside these categories. But they’re common enough to be distinguishing characterizations, reinforced by content like “Facebook, Teens and Privacy: What Parents Should Know,” among others. So there’s a generational divide, especially as it relates to privacy and technology.
Furthermore, the issue isn’t that “kids just don’t respect boundaries anymore” — in fact, young people do have a sense of privacy, says one study. They just have a different viewpoint of what it is.
Parents just don’t understand
The Seattle PI ran a post this week called “Do teens of the Facebook generation value privacy?“, which cites an interesting Microsoft study. Through interviews with 160 teenagers, the researchers found that there are, in fact, norms regarding privacy in the teen set. And they’re just as important in this culture as they are for older generations.
The participants consider Facebook like teens have always regarded meeting places like the mall — a social venue to connect with friends. And just like they’d be mortified if a parent suddenly showed up in the food court, lecturing them in front of their pals, they are likewise embarrassed now when Mom pops onto their wall, commenting about their lives.
It may be a public space, but to them, it’s still an invasion of privacy.
To further explain this, sociologist Erving Goffman cites something called civil inattention, using an example of city dwellers dining shoulder to shoulder in small restaurants:
“Civil inattention is a social norm, driven by an ideal of respect. Staring at someone or openly listening in on their conversations is a violation of social norms which makes people uneasy because it is experienced as an invasion of privacy. For teens, the same holds true online; they expect people – most notably, those who hold power over them – to respect their space.”
So things like location tracking, Facebook Connecting into various sites, or sharing contact lists may not be reason to pause, but a parent or teacher violating their privacy? Well, that’s different. (Apparently way different. One kid even had his mother arrested for breaking into his accounts and locking him out.)
These expectations are for people, not virtual entities. Having grown up with the internet, young people are used to it that way. This is their “normal.” And as more of them grow up, it’s becoming the new normal for all of us.
Personally, I think privacy is important — whatever it means to you. I think it’s worth fighting for, as an inalienable right. But I’m not in favor of turning it into a political platform, a tool for suspicious corporate behavior, or as a way to put down a whole generation of people. It’s even stickier if it fuels a technological witch hunt that can stunt innovation.
I wrote an Android@Home post earlier, and many of you were excited at the prospect of a fully networked home, complete with appliances, gadgets and electricals all working together under one OS. Others were nervous about the privacy and security vulnerabilities it could pose. And that pretty much illustrates where we are right now: Interesting cool projects versus privacy/security.
Where do you stand? Are you worried about privacy? Or do you think, as a college freshman recently said to me, “Don’t kid yourself. Privacy is dead. Anyone who doesn’t think so is kidding themselves.” Weigh in by adding your opinion in the comments.