Erasing David

Privacy is dead?

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg says privacy is dead. So why does he want to keeps this picture hidden?

It’s one law for the rich and another for the rest of us as our secrets are paraded online

Richard Woods

Let’s pick a person pretty much at random: Dan Braden of Austin, Texas. I do not know Braden at all, but I can tell you that in the past few days he has spent $373.46 on Louis Vuitton goods, $162.47 at a local grocery store, $20 at a fitness centre and $3.23 on iTunes.

He is also a regular at Starbucks, went to a Maudie’s Tex-Mex restaurant last week and spent $717.10 on new tyres.

Is someone spying on Braden or hacking into his bank account? Nope. Instead, he has signed up to Blippy, a new website that puts online every purchase users make with a designated credit card. He is happy to publicise where he goes and what he buys. No privacy worries for him.

“If I buy some Britney Spears, I guess my friends would make fun of me,” said Braden, who works for the computer company Dell. “But I’m not too concerned about privacy. I don’t think I’m doing anything I would be embarrassed about.”

Call it openness or exhibitionism, it is spreading everywhere. On Twitter you can post your thoughts minute by minute. On Facebook and Flickr personal photographs abound. One website will even broadcast your weight to the world every time you step on the bathroom scales.

Do we no longer care about privacy? Not much, claims Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chief executive of Facebook. Last week he declared: “People have gotten really comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.” He described such lack of privacy as a “social norm”.

To those who grew up peeking at the neighbours from behind net curtains, it might seem crazy. To younger generations, born with the internet in their DNA, Zuckerberg may have a point.

As Daniel Masoliver, a 24-year-old postgraduate student in London, put it: “The only reason privacy ever existed is because Facebook didn’t. People have always liked talking about what they’re into and the more people share information with one another, the more comfortable others are joining in.”

Nevertheless, some online reaction to Zuckerberg’s claims was hostile. “He’s an idiot,” wrote one social networker; “Poppycock,” said another.

Experts in the social networking phenomenon are also concerned. The erosion of privacy, they say, brings dangers for both individuals and the wider body politic.

Sherry Turkle, professor of social studies of science at Massachussets Institute of Technology, said insensitivity to privacy “shows a disregard of history and the importance of privacy to democracy and, I might add, intimacy. Young people are not unconcerned about this matter. But they feel impotent”.

Even Zuckerberg, 25, is not truly comfortable letting it all hang out. When a change to Facebook’s privacy settings happened recently, it revealed pictures on his profile page of him larking around with friends. In some he looked a bit of a dork.

When news of the photographs spread, the images suddenly disappeared again.

Last week a Facebook spokeswoman was backpedalling vigorously, denying Zuckerberg had said privacy was dead. “His remarks were mischaracterised,” she said. “A core part of Facebook’s mission has always been to deliver the tools that empower people with control over their information.”

She added: “If the assertion is that anything Mark chooses to make private is inconsistent with his remarks last week, here are a few other hypocritical elements of his life: he hides his credit card numbers in his wallet, he does not post the passwords to his online accounts, and he closes the door behind him when he goes to the toilet.”

So is privacy no longer the social norm or not?

IN A YouGov poll for The Sunday Times this weekend, 30% of people said they agreed that privacy matters less than it did, and 63% disagreed. Just over 70% said they were worried about private information falling into the hands of others on the internet, while 28% said they were not worried.

The differences of opinion may partly be down to age. The pace of technological change is so fast that researchers believe even small age gaps produce significantly different attitudes and behaviour.

According to America’s Pew Research Centre, 68% of teenagers send instant messages on the internet compared with 59% of twentysomethings, and a far lower proportion of older age groups. In the UK a study of social networking by Ofcom, the communications watchdog, found that 54% of internet users aged 16-24 had set up a profile on a social networking site, with the numbers falling steadily with age.

The younger these “mini-generations” are, the more they appear to accept openness, if only through necessity. If everyone is revealing their lives online, they don’t want to be left out.

“I remember thinking there was something distinctly creepy about Facebook when I went on it for the first time,” said Jack Hancox, 24, of London. “Now it feels completely natural to put photos up and have various profiles on different sites. But still, I think people are quite wary about what they put online.”

By contrast, Bryony, a 15-year-old Facebooker in Hampshire, said: “I don’t think people are worried about it. When you are writing on Facebook, you are caught up in it and don’t think about privacy.”

One of her friends, Peter, said: “I’m not really concerned — except a little if my future boss finds out what it [his Facebook profile] was like. But it would also be cool looking back on it when I was 60.”

Or maybe not. The follies of youth are a necessary rite of passage, says Turkle, and used to be easily left to fade; now they may stick around for ever.

“Adolescents need to fall in and out of love with people and ideas,” said Turkle, whose forthcoming book Alone Together examines friendships in the digital age. “The internet is a rich ground for working through identity. But that does not easily mesh with a life that generates its own electronic shadow.”

In other words, your youthful mistakes may remain for ever on a computer server and come back to haunt you.

Like many social network users, Sophie, another friend in the Hampshire group, takes comfort from Facebook’s privacy settings.

“I’m not really worried,” she said. “I have it set up so only my friends can see stuff.”

Not everyone is convinced by such safeguards. For a start, Facebook has reduced the privacy level of its default setting. If you don’t actively impose privacy, lots of people will have access to your information. It can also become publicly available if a friend’s profile is not properly protected.

Even if you do try to restrict your profile, the data that remains public can still give away a lot about you. Facebook, for example, has no privacy restrictions on your name, photograph, list of friends and certain other material.

By analysing such data, “spider” programs can draw up social graphs that reveal your sexuality, political beliefs and other characteristics. According to Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge, it can be done even if you list as few as eight friends.

That might not matter so much in Britain, says Anderson, “but in a country like Iran, where they punish gays, this is serious stuff”.

Other concerns relate to how social networking sites use your data behind the scenes. Facebook’s privacy policy runs to more than eight pages of A4 and few users will read it. If you do, you will learn that Facebook “may collect information about you from other Facebook users”; keep details of any transactions you make; and allow third parties access to information about you. It also admits it “cannot ensure that information you share on Facebook will not become publicly available”.

EVER since George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Big Brother state has been most people’s first concern about diminishing privacy. Now private organisations and criminals are catching up fast.

The recent book Delete: the Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age cites the case of Stacy Snyder, a student teacher in Pennsylvania. After she posted a picture of herself apparently drunk on a social networking site she was denied a teaching certificate.

Burglars are already thought to use Facebook to try to find out when properties may be left empty. And Anderson warns that “phishing” is a growing threat. Using data gathered from social networking sites, criminals are sending people emails that appear to come from their friends. Research shows that people are far less wary of such emails than unsolicited spam, even though they can lead to identity theft.

While the rest of us find our privacy is up for grabs, the rich and famous are having theirs increasingly protected. Lawyers are using human rights legislation to bring cases in British courts, which are favourable to protestations of privacy.

The latest action has been launched by Kate Middleton, the girlfriend of Prince William, who claims her privacy was violated by a picture of her playing tennis on Christmas Day.

A greater danger than there being one privacy law for the rich and another for everyone else is that of a chronic malaise, at least in the view of Jaron Lanier, author of a new book called You Are Not A Gadget.

Lanier fears that the openness and “collectivity” of today’s internet is leading us towards mediocrity.

“We shouldn’t want the whole world to take on the quality of having been designed by committee,” he said. “When you have everyone collaborate on everything, you generate a dull average outcome in all things.” The best innovation relies on privacy, he says.

The shift towards openness, however, has momentum and attitudes may well be changing as Zuckerberg claimed. Young people are either unaware of the risks or feel that less privacy is the price they have to pay to participate in social networking.

Anderson is only half-joking when he says social networking has become a “survival necessity” for the young.

“At Cambridge all the party invitations go out on Facebook,” he said. “So if you don’t have Facebook, you won’t get invited to any parties, so you won’t have any sex, so you won’t have any children, so your genes die out. So it’s an evolutionary necessity to be on Facebook.”

Just remember, when you accept that Facebook invitation to a hot date, do not use a Blippy card to buy contraceptives on the way there. Unless you want the whole world to know what you are thinking.

Additional reporting: Georgia Warren

Copyright 2010 Times Newspapers Ltd.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment