Thoughts on privacy versus disclosure in today’s society

It seems that the last few weeks/months a number of media stories have raised an intense discussion around public privacy and social responsibility.  Some examples include:

Such discussions, while appearing on one level to be independent, and unconnected, also appear to me, to revolve around a central theme of ‘public privacy rights and the individual’s right to choose what to disclose‘.  While the first two examples relate to high-profile individuals, the latter example, as well as similar discussions around Google’s use of internet users’ information, and other trends (such as the rapidly increasing number of bloggers), shows how the topic relates to the general public also.

There are certain pieces of information that one might wish to keep private. In many cases, such information relates to one of two topics:

  1. information that might be used against you, for example, to commit fraud, identity theft, or theft of intellectual property (eg, business ideas, future opportunities, commercially sensitive information, etc.), or
  2. information that might be considered to demonstrate a weakness, or something to be ashamed of (eg, health issues, addictions, personal relationship issues, etc. which might relate to oneself or people close to you), which could result in damage to one’s reputation and/or image, and possibly even others taking consequential action (discrimination, duress, or even bribery).

When considering these concepts with regard to each of the examples that I set out at the beginning of the post, one achieves a greater sense of appreciation for the issues being raised and their consequences.

The Huffington Post recently published an article ‘Google CEO On Privacy‘, in which Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, made the following statement, during a discussion of Google’s use of internet users’ personal information:

‘If You Have Something You Don’t Want Anyone To Know, Maybe You Shouldn’t Be Doing It’

There is some truth to this, but it does however oversimplify the situation, by not reflecting the two points that I raised above (the article had some heated debate, which in some cases was well considered, and in other cases naive). It would be nice to think that full disclosure wouldn’t be seized upon by third parties to be used against you, but the reality is that the risk exists.

This then brings us to what is perhaps the key question in this debate – should one minimize disclosure and maximize privacy?

Advantages to maximizing disclosure

Aside from possible financial benefits from disclosure (eg, sales of books, advertising, etc.), maximizing disclosure has some clear non-financial benefits:

  • enhances one’s reputation when open disclosure shows one to have a well directed ‘moral compass’
  • creates transparency, helping explain one’s actions, and avoiding confusion, or rumor (if others feel a need to speculate)
  • helps clear one’s conscience (this might be Andre Agassi’s reason for his recent disclosures)
  • helps one mitigate/explain or ask for forgiveness for past mistakes/decisions if the need arises (this appears to have been partly Tiger Wood’s approach to his blog posts)
  • reduces challenge/arguments from parties who might consider that one is not being sufficiently transparent in one’s dealings
  • enables one to be the creator of interesting discussion and debate

From a corporate perspective, companies are also seen to benefit from increased disclosure relating to corporate social responsibility and corporate governance, driven by a pro-active stance taken by corporations who see competitive advantage opportunities through increased disclosure, as well as public and stakeholder demand for greater disclosure. Many expected that investments in increased disclosure, and underlying ethical/responsible behavior might fall back during the economic downturn, however there are signs that this might not be the case (see ‘Why corporate responsibility is a survivor‘ at FT.com), which I consider to be very positive.

Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, recently answered the question “What is the smartest business idea you have ever had?” with “Giving away as much data as possible and being open” (in the FT ‘Leadership’ article ‘Twitter in 140 characters‘).

Barack Obama, who many consider to be an outstanding role model, wrote and published two books (‘Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance‘, and ‘The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream‘), containing detailed disclosure about his life and his priorities, prior to his successful candidacy for President of the United States of America.

Other considerations of increasing disclosure

‘Marketing’ component of one’s disclosures

Whether personal, corporate, or made by some other form of organization/team, disclosures that are made are often a form of ‘marketing’. In the case of corporate disclosure this is perhaps the primary goal of such disclosures. Such marketing can however itself be misleading if either false/inaccurate, or if they are selective/incomplete (which of course they always are, at least to some extent).

  • Tiger Woods has published a blog for some time, but (naturally) chose not to publish, at the time, the private information about his discretions (actions such as Tiger’s might have been what Eric Schmidt was referring to). Until the recent events came to light, Tiger Woods had a seemingly exemplary reputation in sport. In addition to the people who are most important to him (who, in his last blog post, he states are his family) he has also misled his fans and followers (as well as golfing colleagues, business partners, etc.).
  • Andre Agassi‘s recent disclosures in his book ‘Open’ clearly demonstrated a desire of his to be more open about his life (indeed, his intention was visible from the pun that he uses in the title of his book, with so many fans associating him with his fantastic performances at the US Open). The impetus of his recent disclosures (which, had he raised them at the time of the events, might have adversely impacted his tennis career) might have been more than just conscience. Authors of biographies often make one or the other sensational claims, thereby propelling sales of their books. I haven’t read his book yet (and in any case, I’m not sure whether you’d have certainty either way after doing so). I am nevertheless surprised about his disclosures being made at this time – he also had a brilliant reputation, and unlike Tiger Woods, it seems that he could have ‘gotten away’ without anyone ever knowing what he has now announced (indeed, he had managed to avoid criticism for these matters up until his own ‘confession’).

Public figures (eg, sports stars, musicians, actors, etc.) attract attention, through their media profile. In many cases they also earn handsomely from such media profile, and the lack of a public profile in at least some form would likely reduce their earnings potential.

Indeed, it is impossible for such ‘stars’  to entirely avoid having a media profile since it is inherent in their roles. Nevertheless, they are entitled to pursue privacy in their activities that are off the pitch/stage/screen, but as can be seen from my examples, if is often difficult for these people to separate their public and private lives due to their interconnection and impact/influence on each other.

Knowledge imbalances caused by increased disclosure

An interesting side effect of increased disclosure, and one that many high profile ‘public’ figures suffer from, is an imbalance in knowledge when people meet – the other person might know a lot about you (eg, from your blog, twitterstream, media profiles, etc.) whereas you might know very little about them (even if they have made similar disclosures, you may not have been aware of them, or might not have been reading/following them).

I myself experience this with my blog. It is perhaps too early to comment in detail, however so far I would say that I am comfortable with the world having access to my blog, and I appreciate the times when people (whether I previously knew them or not) tell me that they have come across my blog and give me feedback on it.

Potential downsides from increased disclosure - Data protection and data security

Legal requirements

Organizations need data from us to be able to provide a service, or manage a risk – most developed nations have data protection act laws which ensure that we are aware of who is holding information about us and that we can see that information (eg, the UK’s Data Protection Act, 1988).

Anyone who doesn’t comply with this is in breach of law – of course, one might question whether certain organizations operate outside the law, either because they have not yet been uncovered, or because they are somehow exempt or above the law (eg, secret service organizations operating in the public’s best interest). If such public suspicion exists then any identified breaches will either raise sufficient public anger and demonstration to close such loopholes, or are tolerated due to being deemed to be in the public interest (unless it turns out that it is you that they are monitoring!).

Risk of theft of data held by third parties (including ‘cloud computing’)

In addition to entrusting data to known and ‘approved’ third parties (whether approval is direct, or indirect), much of the fear also relates to theft of data – the vast increase in the volume of digital recording of data, whether local, or ‘on the cloud’ creates new questions for data security.

While cloud computing appears to entrust data security to a third party, possibly raising risks, it also has the potential that through great volume of data the controllers of such data might be able to leverage greater investment to ensure even greater security than what individuals can themselves provide for their own local data management solutions.

Concerns that websites might have ulterior motives with respect to your private data

Google, Facebook, and other websites hold significant amounts of private data (search requests, webpages visited, status updates including opinions and other disclosures, photos, etc.). Website visitors usually benefit from the service provided by any website which they submit private information to, however many users are becoming concerned that this data will either be used by for economic gain against their will (previously many were ignorant to the risk that private information might be anything other than totally in only their own control).

In particular, people have questioned the transparency of the use of the information, and raised concerns that Facebook might be presenting/communicating the privacy controls in a way that confuses users, or encourages them to be more open with their data (including also default privacy settings), either intentionally, or even unintentionally.

Conclusions

  1. There will always be information which we want to keep private (medical data might be a classic example) – it is each individual’s responsibility to determine one’s disclosure, and choose the tools and services to use and educate oneself about how privacy is managed in these tools and services, such that the disclosure level is appropriately managed to an acceptable risk level (bearing in mind that ‘zero risk’ is not possible, given that one most at least occasionally step out of the front door of one’s house). Different people will have different acceptable disclosure levels.
  2. Such debate as we see around Facebook, Google and others is healthy, and will nicely allow free market forces to eventually ensure that website’s privacy controls are at a level that the majority of users are comfortable with, since negative media attention around the privacy topic has the potential to drive away the website’s traffic to other sites, or for users to simply disclose less (both of which are feasible outcomes if the website doesn’t respond appropriately, or in a timely manner to its critics). Perhaps the greatest risk is with smaller websites that are not under such intense media and public scrutiny as Facebook, Google and Twitter.
  3. The extent of individuals’ concerns about the risk of data loss will always determine the extent to which one chooses to be open, regardless of whether such concerns are hypothetical, or from personal experience or rumors. So much is a personal decision that each person needs to make, but should not be driven by media frenzy or activists who feel a need to challenge the system for the sake of it or because they can (rather they should, in my view, only make their own personal choices).
  4. Despite the ‘noise’ around Facebook privacy concerns, the recent massive increase in the number of blogs, bloggers, blog posts and tweets (‘microblogging’ updates/posts from Twitter) highlights a trend towards far greater disclosure (even if the content of some blogs/tweets relates to facts, and not opinions, the choice of public disclosures, and what not to disclose, also sends a message to readers about your personal interests).
  5. I wonder whether this growth in disclosure is entirely from people who are aware of the implications and risks of their disclosures (Twitter and Facebook are freely available to whoever wants to use them, while leaving the responsibility, and the risk, as to how they are used in the hands of the user). On the other hand, I also wonder whether the intensity of criticism of Facebook’s privacy controls is simply because they have become so large, and people love to bring down a giant.

* Footnote: I wondered, in my use of examples, what it means that I chose to comment on Tiger Woods, given the clear statements that he has made in his blog post when announcing his indefinite leave from golf (“What’s most important now is that my family has the time, privacy, and safe haven we will need for personal healing.”). In writing the above I have tried to avoid any speculation, rather focusing only on the facts of the situation and Tiger’s own statements (from his blog). Furthermore, I have not attempted to discuss his family situation, as is specifically requested by Tiger – rather, my focus has been entirely on his own approach to disclosure/privacy. I am, as it happens, not interested in the gossip or rumors surrounding Tiger Wood’s private life. I am a big fan of his golfing skills, and wish him and his family success in rebuilding their lives.

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7 Responses

  1. Very good writing. I am glad your posting that. I hope you can accept my apology for my less good English Skills, I am from France and English is sort of new to me. I will bookmark your blog and keep reading.

  2. Another issue that I see is the duplication of your data in the web. For example, after you change your Facebook profile picture, you may still find copies of your old profile picture via Google who caches a lot of data,

    • That’s a fair point, and leads me to think also about misrepresentation and plagiarism by others.

      Where one is quoted or copied, it is difficult to be aware of when this happens (easier if your name is given, since then you can pick it up via a search engine, Google Reader, or website like Ensembli).

      Sometimes also quotes can be inaccurate due to being edited to say something different, or shown out of context – Twitter is an interesting example, where the 140 character limit means the person retweeting (needing to add “RT @matthewdbenson” in the case of retweeting my tweets) might have to shorten the tweet itself, and thereby change the meaning.

      Indeed, such misrepresentation might even happen online regardless of whether the original statement was made online (blog, twitter, Facebook, etc.) or not (eg, speech or hard copy document).

  3. Interesting take on Facebook privacy, with interview (video) with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, where the blog author disagrees quite strongly (not with the premise so much, but the way in which the conclusion was arrived at) – “Facebook’s Zuckerberg Says The Age of Privacy is Over”:

    http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/facebooks_zuckerberg_says_the_age_of_privacy_is_ov.php?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+readwriteweb+(ReadWriteWeb)

  4. To avoid the need to edit other persons tweets when you are retweeting, Twitter introduced a specific retweet function which replaces the RT with an icon and the retweeted user name is not included in the 140 character limitation.

    I haven’t seen the functionality filtering down to TweetDeck yet, so I do my retweeting directly from the Twitter website.

  5. The functionality is already in Tweetdeck – hover over the photo of the person you want to retweet and click the retweet button (right facing arrow). Tweetdeck will then give you an option to either “Retweet now” (new Twitter style) or “Edit then Retweet” (the manual approach, with “RT @…” at the beginning of the tweet, and the chance to type additional comments, so long as within the 140 chars, before pressing Enter).

    Also, one can memorize the approach for subsequent retweets (I prefer not to, so I have the choice each time) – if you do, you can always undo this in the settings).

  6. [...] privacy concerns, and concerns that it is time-consuming or frivolous (see also my post “Thoughts on privacy versus disclosure in today’s society“). These can be fair objections, but let’s investigate things a little [...]

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