Privacy – On the internet, nobody knows your deep dark secrets

Last week Google launched it’s new social network Buzz, a souped-up Twitter-killer integrated into Gmail. And while the concept was largely praised by early-adopters and social media critics, initial privacy concerns sent a lot of people into a panic. One of the main issues was “auto-follow” – when you signed up, the people you email the most with your Gmail account are automatically added to your Follow-list, instantly giving them access to your public posts, shared Google Reader items and location information. For people such as this lady, who had emailed her abusive ex-husband, this was not the sort of information she wanted to give him! After only a few days Google changed that to an “auto-suggest” model much like Facebook does, and also addressed most of the other privacy concerns initially raised.

This got me thinking about privacy in this new age of interconnectivity. We’re spending more and more of our lives online, and leaving digital footprints everywhere we go. And especially now with the rise of the GPS-enabled smartphone – not only is what we do being documented but also where and when we do it. Buzz is perhaps the most powerful demonstration of that – doing a “Nearby” search on Buzz can reveal all sorts of things. On the weekend, I noticed that everyone in Box Hill was talking Chinese New Year, people in Altona were discussing the by-election, someone in Preston was recommending a florist for Valentine’s Day while in Oakleigh a man bragged about getting drunk with the boys to avoid spending time with the wife (weirdo).

I’m reminded of the somewhat prophetic words of Scott McNeally in 1999 when he was CEO of computer giant Sun Microsystems. “You have zero privacy anyway,” he said. “Get over it.” Eleven years later, we’re starting to find out exactly how true those words were.

To many, this is a disturbing trend. With more of our lives online, and often viewable by strangers, there’s a heightened risk of identity theft, stalking and other negative behaviours.
Parents worry about pictures of their children ending up on the internet. My mother runs a playgroup for children at our local church, each term she gets several enrollment forms with the “Do not allow photos of my child on the website” box checked. These are fully clothed children playing on swings at the local park, in public. I don’t see the need to worry about privacy there. Any pervert with a cheap zoom camera could take similar photos – and even then, where’s the harm? A worldwide network of dirty old men masturbating to… clothed pictures of children playing public? Sure, there’s probably a valid fear that a paedophile might develop an affection for a child that may lead to something more sinister – a low risk, but one that ticking a box on a form won’t prevent. The same thing can happen at the beach, the pool, the local McDonald’s or the bus stop.

Our willingness to put so much of our lives online makes us very easy targets for a growing, but oft ignored, form of crime: identity theft. According to SpendOnLife.com, with a reported 10 million victims in 2008 in the US alone. While 51% of identity theft is from having your wallet stolen, I suspect a large amount of ID theft comes from compromised technology. Mainly things like spyware or keyloggers on your computer, sensitive information sent in plain text over email (most people don’t realise the majority of email is unencrypted) or hacked systems (like when US Phone carrier T-Mobile’s servers were hacked a few years ago). This emphasizes, in my opinion, the need for selective privacy controls on our social media. Don’t tweet your address or phone number, don’t put them on any social media unless you’re sure it’s locked down and secure. Basic, simple rules we learnt in high school, but sadly there’s an older generation of computer users that don’t have that understanding because the internet is still new to them.

But while there are very real concerns about our increasing online presence, the openness that comes with such a public online life could bring some great things. I think this culture of sharing will bring people closer together a lot, giving us a better understanding of each other. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, I’m constantly aware of what’s going on in the lives of friends I who, for various reasons, I may not see very often. So when we do meet up for the first time in months, we don’t have to ‘catch up’ – we already know what’s been going on – and can have fresher, more relevant conversations.

I also think it will make us a more honest society. I want people to assume they have no privacy – if you have no way of hiding things, you will have nothing to hide. As blogosphere expert Jeff Jarvis puts it, “in the company of nudists, nobody is naked”. Too often, I think, our Real Life identity is more fragmented than our online profiles. We have our “This is me, when I’m at work” personality, our “When I’m out with friends” personality (often many such personalities, due to different friendship groups”, our “at home with the family” personality and so on. On the internet, we can keep that if we wish – but I think we’re moving towards having our one, “online self”. Social media aggregators like Buzz, Friendfeed and Cliqset do essentially that – gathering all your accounts and profiles (like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, blogs and photo sites) together in one place. That will, I think, bring out our true avatars much more. Who we are online, will be who we are at home, at work, with friends etc. I see that being a great thing.

If you’re worried that that would mean your boss would see those drunken photos from your university days, don’t be. We’re all human, and the chances are your boss has similar photos that are just as embarrassing. That’s what Jarvis calls “mutually assured humiliation” – everyone knows everyone else’s dirty secrets. So they’re not secret anymore, and since they’re much the same as everyone else’s, they’re not so dirty.

We live in a world of lies and deceit. On the news, our politicians pretend to be perfect and above reproach but are inevitably revealed as human, with human weaknesses and fallibilities (my favourite of recent times is Mark Sanford, whose sudden six-day disappearance caused a media frenzy that  ‘surprised’ him). I hope the internet, through its openness, can turn around this culture of dishonesty. Most political indiscretions are picked up fairly quickly by the media – but when they’re not (our media is just as fallible and subject to corruption as our leaders) bloggers and citizen journalists can uncover them. But politicians have, I think, the most to gain from openness. Mistakes and imperfections are more endearing than facades of perfection. Consider the David Letterman sex scandal from last year. On his show, Letterman confessed to having slept with several women who worked for him on the show. What struck me about his confession was his candour: he says “I had sex”, not “sexual relations” or “was intimate”. He’s open. He’s honest. He never denied it, he didn’t try and hush it up, he just admitted what he did and got on with things. It was really well received. Audiences were quick to forgive him and his show didn’t suffer any noticeable slump. Dave emerged from the situation with little shame or guilt – the big mistake he made was not being honest and up front with his wife in the first place.

The more we share and are open with each other, the better we’ll be able to break down barriers in our society. It’s an experiment I’m trying – I’ve been toying around with Formspring.me for a few months now, which lets people ask you either anonymously or not, any question at all which you can choose whether to answer or not. The open question nature makes it quite interesting, particularly if you follow someone prolific and interesting like Marieke Hardy (I’ve mentioned before that I think she’s awesome, right? Also, that link’s a bit not safe for work). I’ve made lots of my stuff publicly available on my Google Profile including my Buzzes and posts from here. I feel free, and confident talking about nearly anything about me in the spirit of openness.

How open are you online? Are you worried about privacy, or like me do you look forward to a more open society? What steps should people take to protect themselves on this big bad internet? Let me know in the comments!