Privacy in Public – what are you trying to hide?

I remember irritating the heck out of my kids when they asked for a password to one of the systems in the house that they did not really need access to by asking them “can you keep a secret?”  They’d eagerly reply that they could and await the disclosure of the coveted piece of information.  I’d look both ways, lower my voice and say, “so can I.”  I’d then return to my work or enter the secure credentials on the system for them, still keeping the tidbit of data secure and undisclosed.

We all have data that we need to handle this way.  When I do post in public, it’s intentional however – I want others to consume the content and engage with me.  Not all discussions are that public, there are some that deserve face-to-face contact, in a room with a closed door and maybe even locking the door to prevent intrusion.

A post in social media is different.  Today a social posting can go to any number of people by any number of circuitous routes.  Postings can be one-to-one, made to a limited number of connections, a specific group of friends or it can completely public, open for the world to see.  Consumers are getting the options to post as they wish to the networks and audience they choose.  They do have to act to make the choice though and social networks can only respond according to the choice the person making the post chooses.

In the last several weeks we’ve seen a great deal made of employers requesting an applicant’s credentials for their Facebook account.   At worst, this is an HR model gone horribly wrong and at best, it is a few disparate incidents that stirred the imagination of an Orwellian society where everyone is watched by everyone else and incidents of privacy are seen as infractions of the law.  The outcry did do well to bring the issue to light I think – let’s get it behind us.

Employers who want to examine a candidate’s public presence can do so – as the public.  Public is public and if you post a message in a public timeline, employers might get wind of it. Private however means private and cultural sentiment (or soon, by legislation), we expect any request by an employer for credentials to be out of bounds.  Employers, and governments for that matter, need to respect the privacy of discussions they’ve not been invited into.

This is all happening at a time where social postings have become, or are rapidly becoming, the tactic of choice for people to talk with others about any number of things.  The underlying social contract that lets us do this is one that suggests if you share something with me, you meant to share it with me and that it is not my place to share it with other friends.   I think the person that posted it privately expects a modicum of privacy, even while using a free public platform or technology, but I think the person posting needs to expect disclosure when using a social platform.  You might not go looking for it, but you should probably expect it nonetheless.  

What are your rights though?  The Consumers rights in the emerging social contract are still being defined, but keep in mind that this is an environment where you, as the user of the platform, are not the customer of the service.  Advertisers and businesses are the customers of the social platforms you use.  These are the entities paying money to the people who own the platform.  It is you, and your info and your interactions that are actually the product they are selling to marketers.  

The definition of what rights the consumer has in the exchange of data is taking many forms as we sort it all out, but I think Doc Searle’s new book, ‘The Intention Economy’ is getting close to the right answer.   I personally want to believe that consumers have an interest in taking control of their personal data, that they have the foresight to understand that they can be in control of their data and lastly, that they understand that the engagement between them and marketers is one that has value to it.  Time will tell whether or not consumers actually care about their personal data being harvested and whether or not they ascribe a value to the data and at what level they might be compensated for the data by marketers.  It’s not the case today though. The data is being given for free to the platform in exchange for simply gaining access to the platform. 

Many of us early on in the evolution of social recognized that a degree of anonymity would be lost in the overall scheme, but the development of a public persona was an essential part of the work – a conscious decision to share our interactions was made outright.   A case in point of a lack of disclosure being made wrong is in our countries political contests.  Candidates are subjected to intense scrutiny and anything not disclosed and later uncovered, is held high as a prize to be used against them.  The lack of disclosure is seen as a nascent evil and anyone who doesn’t ‘open the kimono’ far enough is cast as a ne’er do well and unworthy of our collective trust.  This has created a culture where we are struggling with the idea that private does not mean bad.  There are a myriad of actions that people at one level or another want to not disclose, not because they are evil, but they are private.  It seems to me though that non-disclosure has become synonymous with a perception that it must be bad if it is not openly disclosed.  

I say bullshit to that sentiment… I really do not want to see naked pictures of you or your friends, nor am I interested in what’s on your phone bill or what shows up in your mailbox.  It’s not secret, it is however private.   So don’t share it – ever.

Business and public interests however have put us under near constant observation.  Cameras on street corners exist, cameras in shopping malls and stores exist and, as Scott McNeely observed back in 1996, “Privacy on the Internet is dead, get over it…”.  While I might agree with the comment, it doesn’t mean I will give it up willingly, or that I do not want privacy.  I believe I have a right to demand a private life and that I have a right to keep government, employers and marketers out of it if I wish.  Not because I’m hiding anything evil, they just don’t need to know.

An online persona doesn’t mean I elect to give up my privacy, neither should you.

Image credit: Adrian Cousins