Your complete guide to navigating the current online privacy shift
Tommy Collison is interning with us for a couple of weeks but is no stranger to the blog having appeared here before. We thought it would be interesting to get a perspective from somebody in their teens about privacy online…
With the sort-of-launch of Google Plus, another social network joins the furor. If nothing else, it reinforces the truth that the internet is no longer a series of static webpages. Instead, it’s something we constantly interact with on social networking sites and the like. With this change comes a lot of anxious people wondering how they can keep their personal information safe in this new “information-sharing age”.
As it turns out, managing your privacy online isn’t actually difficult at all, and it certainly isn’t the case that being conservative with what information you give out somehow decreases what you get out of these social networks. Here’s a quick summary of the current privacy shift and how to stay in control of your privacy online.
What critics don’t realize is that our current perceptions of privacy are shifting. They’re based, by and large, on deeply-rooted ideals set out over years and centuries. However, the internet is an entirely different ball-game to what we’ve seen before. Claiming ownership and having control over our physical property in our own homes is easy, but what about the non-physical stuff online?
The changing face of data (something exacerbated by the influx of cloud-based storage services, and the fact that our data is no longer stored on one physical hard-drive on our desk) means that we definitely have to rethink how we look at privacy online.
No doubt, these shifts will (and already are) challenging our current assumptions and expectations of privacy. The rise of a people-centric internet rather than an algorithm-centric one (something that google was discussing earlier this month) is going to happen. There is little doubt about that, but it is imperative that we keep up with it, or risk being left behind.
Dropbox: How It’s (Not) Done
Dropbox, a web-based file-hosting service, recently found themselves in hot water over privacy concerns that shows just how topical the issue is.
It began with a serious security breach where accounts were compromised, such that anybody could log into 100 accounts with any password. While recovering from the public outcry this caused, Dropbox changed their Terms of Service, which raised concerns over ownership and fair use.
They amended their Terms of Service to read:
We may disclose to parties outside Dropbox files stored in your Dropbox and information about you that we collect when we have a good faith belief that disclosure is reasonably necessary.
This prompted many users to worry. How is “reasonably necessary” defined? Dropbox is a good example of a popular (they reported 4 million users last January) web service suffering huge privacy issues.
What Are the Big-Shots Saying?
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, sees the current privacy shift:
“People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”
Through their use of Facebook, a lot of teenagers today see privacy the same way as Zuckerberg does. They just don’t seem to value it as much as the previous generation did — and for the most part, they’re fine with this. The (perceived) value they get out of Facebook outweighs surrendering some privacy.
Facebook is not the only one who sees the shift in our privacy. In December 2009, Google CEO Eric Schmidt glibly suggested that “if you have something that you don’t want anyone knowing about, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” How true Schmidt’s “guilty men free when none pursueth” sentiment is will continue to be debated for a long time. With this blogpost, I’m not trying to say whether Google and Facebook have got the right idea of privacy, I’m just trying to impress upon you the importance of recognizing the changing nature of our privacy online.
I’m going to be talking about privacy on three main services: Facebook, Twitter and location-based services, namely Foursquare.
There are two core ways to protect you from any trouble when it comes to Facebook.
Thinking before Typing
As President Obama said, when he addressed students in his September address to schools: “be careful what you post on Facebook. Whatever you do, it will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life”. The nature of the internet means that when something gets posted online, it’s very hard to ever truly delete it. Even if you think that something is fairly innocuous, it could have bad consequences down the line. The meteoric rise of social networks getting people into trouble in the workplace has given way to a new term being added to our internet lexicon: Facebook Firing.
If you’ve thought it through, made certain your bosses aren’t your friend, and you still feel like writing that incendiary status update, go ahead; but you’re still not home and dry. Even though your bosses mightn’t be friends with you, you could have mutual friends. Let’s say that Friend A, who’s the mutual friend of you and your boss, comments on your status. Even though you’re not friends with your boss, Friend A is, and your boss will be able to see your status update because of that.
Twitter has a very neat way of protecting your privacy on the site, even though it can’t really be said that they go out of their way to make it visible. If you check the “Protect my tweets” box, your tweets won’t be visible to internet users without an account (the ones just going to twitter.com/StephenFry). Also, twitter users will have to request to follow your private account before they can see your tweets. This is by far the best way of protecting your privacy on Twitter.
It's also important to mention the asymmetrical nature of Twitter in comparison to Facebook or Foursquare. If we both have public Twitter accounts, and I want to follow Anthony Rapp (a famous actor), I can do so without Anthony having to do anything. He doesn’t have to follow me back or engage with me at all, I can just be following him.
The same isn’t true on Facebook or Foursquare; where he has to actively allow my request to view his details and updates before I can see them. If Anthony does accept me, then he also gets subscribed to my Facebook/Foursquare feed, which isn't the case on Twitter.
This asymmetrical relationship only extends to non-verified user accounts. Up to this week, you couldn't send a Direct Message to an account that didn't follow you. However, Twitter has recently begun rolling out a feature where if the account is "verified" (the account has provided Twitter with proof that the account belongs to the celebrity/company, whereby Twitter will award a blue tick), the rule is relaxed, and Direct Messages can be sent regardless of whether the account follows you or not.
The nature of Twitter, and the fact that it’s largely based on what you can offer rather than who you are, is important to the question of privacy. Because of this, personal details such as your specific location, e-mail address or friends list isn’t as important as it is on Facebook. You see this in the fact that you probably follow lots of people you’ve never met on Twitter while probably having met everyone on your Facebook friends list.
Foursquare is a little different as it’s built around your location as opposed to status. On Foursquare, an app for Apple, Android and Blackberry, you “check in” to different venues such as cafÃ©s, bookshops, restaurants or train stations.
What’s the appeal? Well, more and more venues are offering specials to those who check in, such as a free coffee every second check-in or 10% of a book in a bookstore. You can also leave tips at venues, which I found invaluable when I lived in America for three months last fall. I used Foursquare tips to see what the best places to eat, buy books and hang out were. My check-ins are only visible to people I’m ‘friends’ with, those who I expressly allow to see my profile. In return for accepting their request, I can see where my friends are, and there’s been more than one occasion where I’ve seen a friend checked in somewhere, and then texted them to see if they wanted to grab dinner.
Obviously you should be very careful about accepting friend requests on Foursquare, as these people can see your current location.
So, even though there is a shift in how we view online privacy, it’s still very possible to protect yourself online. The best way of protecting yourself online is to simply know the ins and outs of the services you’re using, and specifically know how to navigate their privacy settings. Become familiar with Facebook’s privacy settings (which lets you preview how your profile looks to outsiders) and also Twitter’s settings pane. Especially keep an eye on Facebook’s app permissions pane and Twitter’s one, where all the third-party applications you’ve previously given access permission to your profile are listed. Revoke access for the ones you no longer use.
You know what they say: knowledge is power, and it’s imperative that we, as internet users, set our own rules for how we use the internet. We shouldn’t have to use all these great technologies at the expense of our privacy.