Why are we so willing to risk our own privacy online?

  • Author: Lauren
  • Lauren Fisher,

The concept of privacy is reaching a very fragile state. With every single status update that we share, we are foregoing a part of our privacy, readily handing over data to pretty much anyone that wants to access it. Yet it is something that we seem so willing to do. Privacy as a concept will only last as long as society functions in a way to protect it and that is rapidly eroding.

While we can access tools or processes that allow us to protect our own privacy, as a society we are increasingly ignoring these in favour of sharing pretty much everything. Just as my bank offers me security to keep my financial goings-on private, there's nothing to stop me publishing those details on my blog, likewise where Twitter offers me the ability to keep my account private so only those that I approve can access it, the majority of us willingly overlook that in the interests of keeping everything public, so growing our own communities.

Privacy is eroding because with social technologies, it's a catch 22. The more I share, the more I will get out of the services offered. So I continue to share more and more with only a limited understanding of the implications of this or who can really access my data, whether they have the right to or not.

Banking on egos

What social networks understand, and with the most recent changes we're really talking about Facebook here, is that they can continue to rely on a fundamental human trait : the ego.

With the new Timeline option, they are giving us the capability to share pretty much every single event from our lives so far, including before Facebook even arrived. And while some might just try out adding a few things as the functionality becomes available to all, there will be a large portion of people that will become almost obsessive about the 'life events' they choose to add.

Why? Because we understand that an existing friend or newcomer can come along and access our profile at any time and get a complete snapshot of our lives. Do we want them to see something fairly empty and uneventful, or would we rather portray a more idealised version of our lives, full of interesting events and milestones? For the majority, the answer will be in the latter.

In many ways it is no different to conversations you will have down the pub, or with coworkers on a Monday morning. When asked what you did at the weekend, are you going to choose to not tell them about the amazing thing that happened to you? You will select only the best information that fits with the image you want to portray of yourself. It is this that is contributing massively to the loss of privacy online. Though the option to share virtually nothing, or keep everything incredibly private is there, the temptation to not do so is too big because it ties into basic human nature.

Privacy is stil new

There are many that argue that privacy will never truly go away, because there are examples in the extreme such as financial or medical history that we will always have a right to remain private.

There are two fundamental flaws in this argument however that have far-reaching consequence for the growth of social technologies. While it is right that my financial details (bank account number, balance etc) can remain private if I want them to, there is a vast amount of data that I'm sharing online that could soon mean this is no longer true. While it's unlikely of course that access to my bank account will only be possible if I choose to actually publish the numbers, if you consider every single piece of information that I share about myself, it will become incredibly easy for an algorithm to determine things such as my average salary, credit rating etc..

There are many occasions where I've published updates such as needing to get a credit card, what I can't afford, what I'm saving up for etc.. And that's just what I've published in the very few years that I've been active on social media. Fast forward 10 years and consider the amount of information I will have shared. As algorithms become more sophisticated and provided I am active on social media, you will be able to access more information about anyone than you could have thought possible.

There is a further argument however against the idea of privacy being a fundamental that will never disappear. And that is the fact that the very notion of privacy - of individuals being protected from information entering the public domain, once didn't exist.

When it comes to privacy and the media, one of the first references to the idea of individual privacy was in 1890, when two academics published an article relating to the printing press. This excerpt sums up the article brilliantly: "For years there has been a feeling that the law must afford some remedy for the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons;[11] and the evil of invasion of privacy by the newspapers".

It points to the fact that as recently as 1890, privacy in terms of a legal right to prevent your information entering the public domain, this didn't really exist. While this may seem extreme and it differs of course from social technologies in that this is information we are publishing oursleves - we are the media in this case - it highlights that privacy is a fragile concept. There was a time when it didn't exist, therefore it's not completely implausible that there could be a time when it ceases to exist.

Where our data will end up

There is a further reason why it seems we are so willing to risk our own privacy with the huge amounts of data we are sharing about ourselves. As well as those that are perfectly willing for everything to become public, there is a huge group of people - far too large - that is in the dark about just where that information will end up, or just who has a right to access it, even if we choose to keep it public. While a private Twitter account cannot be crawled by Google or an external programme (provided it's not hacked), there is a level of government intervention that will mean in many cases, social networks are obliged to hand over the data that it's gathered.

There are an estimated 300,000 requests for information annually in the U.S. alone, to telecoms and internet companies, that are directly related to law enforcement. Of course, there are some that make this far too easy - remember the guy that happily published his 'loot' during the London riots? But there are many instances where we are publishing information that we would not normally choose to hand over.

And this is where there seems to be little clarity, in just how social networks have to respond to government demands for user data, and indeed how aware the individual is when this request is in place. This is not to suggest that if governments accessing data could help prevent an awful crime, that it shouldn't happen. This is of course a good thing but there are other, less extreme cases where individuals are publishing reams and reams of data with little understanding of who could access it or how it could be used against them.

The difficult thing is that for every argument against a basic loss of privacy and invasion of social networks, there is an army of individuals (myself included) that is happily sharing more and more information that is contributing to this very scenario. At the moment it's difficult to see where the limit lies. As long as we are given the tools to share information about ourselves, we are going to do it. The danger is that the long-term implications of this are still unclear, as the amount of data currently surrounding an individual online is very small compared to what it will be in 10 or 20 years time.