Privacy Isn’t Dead – It’s Not Even Sleeping

It’s become something of a predictable phenomenon: an article, op-ed, or blog post will surface with an incendiary quote indicating that privacy is dead, or that Internet users have given up privacy with abandon. A slew of data is thrown around – often reporting on teenagers’ online habits – and a eulogy for privacy is trumpeted. Last week, the process repeated itself when a CNET article waxed and waned about why no one cares about privacy anymore.
 
It is true that our society’s use of technology is changing the ways we interact and has eroded some privacy barriers. However, claims that ‘no one’ cares about privacy are at best short-sighted hyperbole and at worst poorly veiled justifications for future infringements on privacy. As danah boyd [sic], a leading researcher on privacy, social networks, and youth put it this weekend at SXSW: “When people say that privacy is dead, it just warrants others to disregard it.”
 
Wanted: More Nuanced Views of Privacy
 
The CNET article, which stands as only the most recent of many privacy dirges, referred to a Pew survey that found 40 percent of people with an online profile have disabled privacy settings. But consider the flipside: 60% of adults and 66% of teens maintain privacy settings. This data is consistent with what we are hearing from the social networks themselves: over 50% of Facebook users customized their privacy settings last December using Facebook’s new privacy wizard. As Facebook’s Tim Sparapani recently stated, Facebook users sent a clear message that “privacy is important to [me], I'm going to control my data and I've now been given tools by Facebook to do so.”
 
Of course these statistics fail to reveal the many other actions that users take to protect their privacy. For example, a 2007 Pew study found that more than half of teens post false information to their online profiles, like incorrect birthdays. (Although this technically violates Facebook’s terms of service, Facebook acknowledged that posting false personal information was acceptable behavior.) Other privacy protective behaviors include the widespread use of browser plug-ins that block advertisers from obtaining user information.
 
And what of those digital natives – whose numbers include the authors of this post – whose habits, as conventional wisdom would have it, are proof that privacy is an outdated concept? In our experience, many older adults view their privacy choices starkly: either you use the service and give up privacy or you don't use the service at all. On the other hand, some signs indicate that digital natives' disclosure of their personal information is influenced by a more nuanced understanding of privacy and the fact that they are… young.
 
CDT’s Heather West described the attitude of digital natives well in her guest blog post  for Wired’s Geek Dad this past September. “Digital immigrants tend to think about privacy as the ability to conceal information from others,” she wrote. “Digital natives instead share information within certain contexts, and with granular privacy controls on that information… We want our cake, and we want to eat it too- we want to share our content online, and we want to control who we share it with.” Indeed, older adults have outpaced teenagers in their embrace of Twitter, which is notable for its “share everything” philosophy.
 
But in addition to valuing more granular controls, younger Americans at times exhibit a pattern of imprudent behavior not at all unusual for people their age. While some of the choices made by digital natives may portend the future of online interactions, attitudes on privacy tend to change when one starts applying for jobs, having kids or trying to build credit. At some point it is also worth asking: since when does the behavior of teenagers mirror the preferences of the rest of society?
 
Meanwhile, outside of the social networking space studies have consistently indicated that the overwhelming majority of individuals of all ages do not want to be tracked, offline or online, for marketing purposes. A September 2009 study reported that 80% of young adults reject advertisements that are tailored based on their activities across multiple Web sites. If the advertisements are tailored based on information gathered about their offline behavior, then 90% of young adults want nothing to do with these ads. If no one cared about privacy, one might think research would show greater demand for such advertisements, or at least apathy towards them.
 
Privacy baselines often dictated
 
Societal privacy norms are profoundly shaped by forces over which consumers have little or no control: defaults are set by social networks, search engines, and browsers whose bottom lines may be tied to their ability to exploit individuals’ information. Major online companies, as well as governments, are agents of social change and their actions have profound influence on the state of “normal” and the attitudes of their hundreds of millions of constituents by extension.
 
While it may border on unreasonable to call for an end to technological wonders like social networking or location-based services, it is certainly not unreasonable to argue for baseline settings that are more protective of privacy. User choices must not be limited to either giving up massive amounts of personal data or not using the service entirely. Instead, as CDT frequently argues, people should be given control over their information by default.
 
If societal norms were truly anti-privacy, people would clamor to have privacy restrictions removed, but they don’t. Until they do, claims that privacy does not or should not matter to anyone come off as disingenuous attempts to engineer a future in which that is actually true.

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