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The Changing Definitions of Privacy June 3, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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There was a time, certainly not so long ago that most of us don’t recall it, when privacy meant you wanted not to be burdened with the need to be sociable to another human being.  You could lock your door, unplug your phone (although that was difficult to do in an era before modular jacks), and you could hold off contact with any other person for as long as your food held out.

Clearly that has changed today.  We in the US have a constitutional right of privacy, implied but real in law.  And it means much more than simply shutting ourselves off from others.

On the one hand, individuals and businesses want to reach out to us much more strongly and intimately.  At the outlet malls in Maine over the weekend, it was difficult to buy anything, even with cash, without giving out your zip code and/or phone number.  Personal friends want to share photos and thoughts, and want us to do likewise.

At the same time, we are happy to provide more details of our lives and thoughts (case in point: this blog).  I recently returned from vacation and one of the first things I did was download and post photos on Snapfish to share with friends and coworkers.  Sites like LinkedIn and Facebook encourage us cough up our likes and dislikes, professional history, and just about anything else.  In an era where it may not be possible to apply for a job without a LinkedIn profile, we want to let others know about our positive experiences.

Yet we still have a strong sense of privacy.  In one way, that sense is objective.  Given enough information about us, someone with malicious intent can duplicate our identity, in effect becoming us for the record.  Because we are real and that person is ersatz, we end up being held accountable for his or her crimes, debts, or other misdeeds, and it is a long and painful process to set the record straight.

Our sense of privacy extends to our relationship with businesses and to at least some extent government.  There are things we want to share with our friends (however you may define that), but not with potential employers.  We are in general pleased to get rid of junk mail and have promotions and offers targeted to us as individuals based on our preferences, but it seems a bit creepy when our wants can be predicted so precisely, and across businesses where we haven’t established a relationship.  And we are generally happy that government can cross-reference its databases find those who owe money to the public trough, except when it happens to us.

At the most fundamental level, almost all of us would like to protect the sanctity of our genetic structure, prohibiting insurance companies from categorizing us based on our predisposition to certain afflictions, and biotech companies from claiming patents on individual genetic attributes that demonstrate immunity or resistance from certain diseases.

So what, in fact, is privacy today?  Is it something amorphous, like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s classic description of pornography – “I know it when I see it.”  Or can we codify it, as we were able to do in a simpler past?

Facebook has been repeated criticized for defaulting to a full sharing of the most intimate of our postings, and intentionally or not making it difficult to configure otherwise.  Google was uncharacteristically clumsy in its launch of Buzz, making public information many preferred not be exposed.  Whatever it may be, we as an industry aren’t doing a very good job at it.  A big part of the problem is that your data is worth something, to identity thieves but also to business.  The more they know about you, the greater the financial return.  The inclination is to obtain more information rather than less.

I know barely enough to ask these questions, imperfect as they may be.  And I certainly don’t know the answers.  But we need definitive answers soon, if we expect to establish a new mainstream definition for privacy.

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