The largest shift I’ve seen over the course of the last year in the digital space has been regarding the concept of privacy.
As always, I like to start with a definition:
“Privacy is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or information about themselves and thereby reveal themselves selectively. The boundaries and content of what is considered private differ among cultures and individuals, but share basic common themes. Privacy is sometimes related to anonymity, the wish to remain unnoticed or unidentified in the public realm. When something is private to a person, it usually means there is something within them that is considered inherently special or personally sensitive. The degree to which private information is exposed therefore depends on how the public will receive this information, which differs between places and over time. Privacy is broader than security and includes the concepts of appropriate use and protection of information.” -Wikipedia
Somewhere along the last few years, millions of people traded off the concept of privacy (as it was known up until recently) for convenience. Facebook is now a behemoth 550 million member platform, location-based social networks are exploding, chronically ill patients are sharing sensitive personal medical files, and the line behind your personal self and business/professional self has been permanently blurred.
Oh and let’s not forget the fact that even if you think the Internet is the devil and you refuse to do anything “online”, plenty of people all around you are constantly snapping photos, recording audio, writing, and sharing it with the world. Do you seriously think that you’ve never had a photo/video taken of you that could be floating around the Internet somewhere? Even if it was taken well before the Internet era, it could easily have been digitized by now.
Through the various audiences I interact with during my speaking engagements, I have learned that in most cases, people don’t yet have an idea of the scope or implications of what is happening here. Nor do I claim to have that knowledge. This is in large part because, the aggregate benefits people tend to derive from social media have so far outweighed any risks. And the longer people go without any negative consequences, the more they are willing to share. You can see this concept in action by looking at the Evolution of Privacy on Facebook as an example.
As little as a few years ago, sharing your exact location in real-time with others was still seen as “risky” even by mainstream social media users (think back to the initial reactions surrounding Google Latitude). Some people immediately caught on to the potential implications (i.e. www.pleaserobme.com), however most remained oblivious. Today, due to the widespread use of smart phones, there are not only plenty of dedicated location based social networks in existence (e.g. Foursquare, Gowalla), but now existing social media platforms are starting to add “check-in” features (e.g. Facebook “Places”, Yelp).
So what does this mean in terms of privacy as a concept? Is it dead?
Personally, I don’t think so. I just think that for years it was stagnant in terms of evolution and hence nobody really paid attention to the fact that, as stated in the definition, privacy “differs between places and over time”. In the last decade the evolution of privacy went into turbo mode and thus an average Joe’s comfort level with sharing personal information today is light years ahead of what it was as recently as the year 2000.
What does that leave us with?
Our own judgment based on our own comfort level. The first step however is making people aware of just how permanent digital data is, so that they can make an informed decision. I’m still waiting for the day when “responsible digital engagement” is taught in every school, by every employer, and by every parent. The current privacy pitfalls are purely in the widespread lack of awareness, which often leads to innocent mistakes. People need to know when to use which channels, rather than treating them all as one and the same. At the end of the day, our only true privacy for now may be our inner thoughts. Let’s leverage that while we still can. If the recent developments in biometric data reading applications are any indicator, very soon there will be an app for that as well.