Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Privacy in the modern times

It seems to me that with the advent of all our social media applications – Facebook, MySpace, twitter, Flickr, Tumblr etc., the ability for us to get our thoughts out there is the easiest it’s ever been. The detail that this provides to people is remarkable. Ad companies use it for focused advertising, other companies use it for various nefarious means and criminals use it to steal our identities. Less insidious I think is that people can know us in a way they never have before. The cost to our privacy seems to be one we’re happy to bear though – the most popular consumer mobile devices have Facebook and the like built in and integrated with everything – messages, photos, GPS locations etc. Our internal thoughts and feelings are now able to externalised quickly and limitlessly. Nine times out of ten this is incredibly boring stuff (let’s face it, we’re not as interesting as we’d like to be), but the fodder for bullies, abuse and misuse is extraordinary. It’s very much like posting a sticky note to the wall at school with your latest thoughts and opening yourself up to complete, uncontrolled scrutiny. We all know how much impact putting yourself out there at school can have. Now we do it on a global scale and it doesn’t seem to be an important thing to consider the value of our private lives.

Never mind the fact that once something gets to the Net it never seems to leave. Those embarrassing moments, which once passed leaving only an uncomfortable memory, now linger – sometimes that moment makes it to Youtube and it can live forever. These little moments, of often excruciating embarrassment now have the potential to harm us forever. One can make injunction to have them removed, a costly and time consuming procedure which often brings even more attention to the moment and so is only a partial remedy. It doesn’t stop people from downloading and keeping these images and movies for ever on their own personal machines. This is even exploited as people do stupid things for attention (and get it). The slapstick comedy of the Three Stooges seems to have morphed into Jackass and our collective intelligence has taken a mighty hit. But back to privacy.

I see the youth of today posting details, photos and information about themselves that as a young person I would never have done (and as an old person am even less likely). The generation older than mine are so recalcitrant about their personal feelings and life it can be like pulling teeth getting any information out of them even under the best and most appropriate of circumstances. It certainly adds to their mystery – another underrated and mostly lost commodity in the world. Whether it’s the endless tweets of a person summing up their thoughts in 160 characters or their barely there clothing, mystery is a lost art. Privacy and mystery are inextricably linked, and we don’t seem to realise that as you give up one, you give up the other. Potential partners or even potential employers can look into what you are doing, often without appropriate context, and make judgements on you and your behaviour without having other critical information, for while we do tend to post a lot of information to the net, most of it requires a certain amount of local knowledge (i.e. you had to be there type thing)

It is incumbent upon IT professionals to help non-technical people navigate this quagmire of what to do. The privacy settings of Facebook (for example) are not clear cut and there have been many times I’ve seen a profile completely exposed to all and sundry – birthdate, address, phone etc. – everything the budding identify thief needs to acquire and then sell your identity with. We need to help people understand what they can and should share to the world. There is a vulnerability to such openness and most lay people don’t understand the potential for harm. IT professionals have an obligation therefore to protect people from their potential loss through education and technical assistance. If you consider your current visibility on the Internet – where are you vulnerable?

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