The ubiquity of digital gadgets and sensors, the pervasiveness of networks and the benefits of sharing very personal information through social media have led some to argue that privacy as a social norm is changing and becoming an outmoded concept. In a seven-part series Don Tapscott questions this view arguing that we each need a personal privacy strategy. This post is Part Four of that series. For previous articles go here.
Privacy is important to our concept of the self and our relationships with others. But there are other dangers that should cause us to be careful what information we share. These are not simply unfounded fears of "privacy fanatics" as Jeff Jarvis calls them in the book Public Parts.
As noted earlier, we are collectively creating, storing and communicating information at nearly exponential rates of growth. Most of this data is personally identifiable, and third parties control much of it. Practical obscurity -- the basis for privacy norms throughout history -- is fast disappearing. More and more aspects of our lives are becoming observable, linkable and identifiable to others. Thanks to networked computing technologies, this personal data will be archived online forever and be instantly searchable, and none of us have any idea how it might be used to harm us.
Yes, these are used to provide us with extraordinary new services, new conveniences, new efficiencies, and benefits undreamt of by our parents and grandparents. At the same time there are novel risks and threats are emerging from this digital cornucopia. The availability of so much detailed personal information can be used for secondary purposes, many of which are not known or intended by the individuals.
To start, there is the injury to individuals that arises from unauthorized disclosure of sensitive personal information, but tangible harms and damages can also occur, too, such as from blackmail, identity fraud, impersonation, and cyber-stalkers. These are the diseases of the Digital Age.
Yes, likely someday there will be norms, laws and practices governing the responsible use of all this data. But practically, these do not exist today. There is little guarantee that personal information you share from social media sites is locked down or will not be used in ways that harm you. Much of it can be searched and retrieved by anyone on the Internet, including employers, law enforcement officials, public sector agencies, infomediaries, lawyers, the press, and anyone else who may be interested in the data. When this data is assembled into profiles, matched with other info and used to make (automated) judgments about (and decisions affecting) individuals, such as whether to hire them, or whether to admit entry, or to calculate benefits or terms of an offer, or to corroborate a claim, then the effects of privacy loss include discrimination, especially if the data is inaccurate.
As you read this essay, young people are being denied that dream job because of they didn't understand that they needed to be careful about what one posts on Facebook. Ninety percent of all employers access young people's social media pages when they are considering an application. Seventy percent reject people based on what they find. In some cases employers demand that job applicants provide social media ID's and passwords as a pre-condition to hiring.
College applicants are being rejected because of their Facebook Newsfeed. Facebook postings have been deemed admissible by courts during litigations. And is some cases privacy settings won't help -- information you have restricted to close friends can be discoverable.
When your teenage daughter engages in sexting -- sending sexually explicit messages by phone to her boyfriend -- she has no idea where these can end up. While the exact extent of this practice is debated, studies have indicated that 20 percent of teens have sent nude or semi-nude photographs of themselves electronically. There are countless stories where the reputation, happiness and even safety of girls and young women have been compromised as result.
The longer term, societal effects of a general loss of privacy due to ubiquitous data availability and surveillance are not well-understood. The ability to record nearly everything and to make that record available to others is unprecedented in human history, and defeats parallels. What will it be like to grow up in a world that does not forget? Will comments posted online at age 14 discourage people from seeking public office or speaking out years later, out of fear?
Yes we need new understandings in society. As Tim Berners Lee, creator of the World Wide Web says "Just as there are laws that prevent discrimination based on gender, race and age we need a law banning discrimination on the basis of something you said on Facebook before the age of 19." But lacking such, a parent's mantra should be "sharer beware."
Just as parents caution their children about the dangers of playing in the street or running with scissors, they must also educate and work with their children in developing personal privacy strategies.
Next up: "Corporations - the Main Beneficiaries of Personal Sharing"
Don Tapscott is the author of 14 books about technology in business and society, most recently with Anthony D. Williams "Macrowikinomics." He discusses these ideas on twitter @dtapscott