Privacy follow-up: what you should do, what companies should do

May 21, 2010

In a discussion on my recent post on Facebook and privacy, Erin linked me to “Privacy Is Dead… And It Could Be Great,” which claims that part of the reason we are more willing to give up our personal information is that for the first time, we’re getting value back. When we give our personal information to Facebook, it improves our Internet experience.

My first response was that that perception of exchanged value is what makes handing over our privacy so alluring and why it’s become harder to convince people that they might want to resist giving up that information. I also linked this to the increasing commercialization of society and the transformation of people into consumers.

Erin responded–rightly–that there are people who want this, that being able to go to Yelp and have Facebook automatically fill in your location is a great feature. And while I would rather live more privately and have fewer integrated tools like this, I need to respect that other people will make different choices.

And really, it’s the ability to make an informed choice that is really important to me. I will continue to advocate for caution and reservation when it comes to sharing your personal information, but what is more important to me is that you know what information you’re giving out, who will have access to it, and what it will be used for, and that you will have the ability to control what happens to your personal information.

Earlier this month, David Lee King asked if privacy is really that big a deal. He concludes that the information you share on Facebook isn’t important enough to bother hiding and that a lot of it is already available elsewhere on the web.

But there are multiple facets to privacy: you should think about which people will have access to your information (which maybe isn’t such a huge deal with Facebook), but you should also think about what Facebook will do with that information. While having integration between different websites makes doing things on the Internet easier, companies don’t exist to make your life cooler. They exist to make money, and when you give them your personal information, they’re going to try to figure out how to make money off of it. Will Facebook sell your information to spammers and junk mailers? Probably not–but they could if they wanted to, and they will use their massive store of incredibly detailed information about each user to sell ad space to organizations that want to target a very specific group.

I can’t remember where I heard about it, but Aza Raskin has a great blog post on what should matter in privacy. After a workshop on online privacy, he and Lauren Gelman and Julie Martin came up with seven attributes they’d like to see represented with icons that give users an indication about how the information they give to websites will be used:

  • Is you data used for secondary use? And is it shared with 3rd parties?
  • Is your data bartered?
  • Under what terms is your data shared with the government and with law enforcement?
  • Does the company take reasonable measures to protect your data in all phases of collection and storage?
  • Does the service give you control of your data?
  • Does the service use your data to build and save a profile for non-primary use?
  • Are ad networks being used and under what terms?

With privacy online, my major concerns are two-fold: do users know what’s happening to their information? And can companies be trusted with it?

In 2009, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

In libraries, we offer people a place to seek information without fear of having what they’re doing revealed because only then can you seek information freely. Just because you want to do something privately doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing it. If a patron wants to get information on STIs, he or she doesn’t want to do that in a forum where other people might find out–and that doesn’t make the patron a criminal.

In the case of Google and Facebook, when leaders within the company speak so derisively about privacy, you need to be concerned. They don’t care if your privacy is protected because protecting it isn’t profitable, so it’s up to you. Know what you are agreeing to when you accept the Terms of Use. Know what might be done with your information. Demand more transparency and accountability from the corporations to which you give your information.

While I hope people will be cautious about their personal information online, what is more important is that peple be informed and that peple be able to put their privacy settings at a level that is comfortable to them.

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1 Comment Leave a Comment

  • 1. kevinoshea  |  May 21, 2010 at 10:19 PM

    While I am one who is usually quick to give up my information, and tout that i have “nothing to hide” when it comes to my social networks, I too am leery of the current state of privacy on the web. When Facebook, whose population rivals that of the fourth largest country in the world, makes changing personal privacy settings a feat rivaling that of navigating Minos’ Labyrinth, I think we’ve come to a point where we need to pump the breaks.

    I am a-okay with sharing information, but make sure that other users can say no, and do so easily.

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