Monday, April 16, 2007

The future of privacy: lots of questions, no real answers

We live in a world where being connected and available 24/7 is taken for granted. Was I really born into a world where you drove around looking for a payphone and then hunted for a dime to make a call? Did I once really own one of those huge brick car phones? I remember at 15, my best friend taking me to her bank machine - the first and one and only for several years in my little hometown - and showing me how she could get money from the bank anytime she wanted. Amazing! Fast forward a few decades and if you're a teenager or college student and you're not on Facebook, well, you don't exist. Reality TV promises everyone 15 minutes of fame. Or you can join the masses and start a blog. Or set up shop in Second Life. It's not that we are ghosts in the machine; we are not real unless we are in the machine. It's all happened so fast.

This desire to be visible, to have a presence in a virtual space, is more than a bit unsettling to me. We all have ideas to share and questions to explore, that's why I started this blog. It is a research space for me to ask questions, to try to answer them, and to hopefully hear the thoughts of others on the topic. This makes sense to me and seems to have limited risk. What I find most unsettling is the way that many blogs and social networking sites encourage the individual to introduce all aspects of their personal life and most intimate thoughts into the public realm. It seems an enormous risk in a world where most Hollywood celebrities (Britney and Paris excepted, of course) are desperately trying to preserve the privacy of their personal lives.

A recent survey published Oct. 26, 2006, reported that "26 percent of hiring managers use search engines to check on potential hirees. Half of the manager respondents said they dismissed job candidates based on what they found using a search engine. Sixty-three percent crossed a candidate off their lists because of what he or she had put on a social networking site." Whether or not this is a fair or ethical approach for hiring managers to take is debatable: the fact is that individuals are willingly making more personal information available about themselves in a public forum than has ever been available historically. In what other ways could this information be used? By prospective romantic partners? By insurance companies? And how long will this information be "out there"? What control does one have once the information is published on the Web?

One could argue that adults need to be aware of the potential risks of what they post and consider the consequences. But what about those who share the personal information of others without their informed consent? Dooce's posts include a monthly hommage to her daughter Leta, which include photos, as well as many blog entries documenting her bowel habits. How will Leta feel about this when she's older? Will she consider it a violation of her privacy? Or, will she, along with the rest of her generation growing up in the spotlight of Mommy blogs and Facebook and MySpace not really differentiate between what should be public and what should be private?

The blurring of public and private is a disturbing trend, with potentially devastating consequences: so why do people feel compelled to "show-and-tell-all" online? That's for another post.

No comments: