Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Digital Privacy

In the post-Snowden world is there any sort of real expectation of digital privacy? We can – and should- rail against such intrusive acts of government into communications that we have been told are private.  The surveillance of the state into the private affairs of individuals is an insidious form of violation. However, what does one make of the growing trend of digital citizens to self reveal in places that are for all intents and purposes the digital equivalent of highway billboards?  Here the individual can’t blame an intrusive outside agency.  Rather, the individual puts the disclosures and publicity out there themselves.

Politicians tend to get stuck more frequently than the rest of us.  Witness the feckless Irish politician forced to resign after sending ‘spanking’ messages to women while in the Irish parliament.   Or Raymand Lam, a young NDP candidate, who with drew from the election after facebook photos of him circulated. Both of these politicians found themselves in the public eye for behaviours that flouted public sensibilities. 

Politicians, however, are not alone: the list of folks like, teachers, lawyers, or doctors, who interact with the public in the course of their normal work, who have been outed via social media for violating social sensibilities is growing.  To a certain extent this is a category of people who are held to higher social standards.  They should know better.  Court decisions have consistently held teachers to a higher standard of behaviour, even when not at work!  This has extended into social media where teachers, in particular given the special trust society has placed in them (loco parentis) to care for legal minors, find a particular needto create privacy firewalls. 

However, there is the grand ocean of most other people who perplexingly place all kinds of information out there into cyberspace.  I sometimes wonder if they know what they are doing.  Is this deliberate?  Or, did they misunderstand the privacy controls on the social medium they are posting to.

In my role as a university professor I know that just about everything that I say might be blogged, tweeted, or posted somewhere – quite likely not in a way that I might like.  There might even be videos There is even that special place of shame –ratemyprof- that gives students license to say the damnedest things about their faculty.  I might not like this but it is part of the practical reality of the social world within which I work and teach. 

I do try and pay attention to what I actually control online.  I think about emails that I send (even so I am like most other people and there are emails that I might rather wish I hadn’t sent).  I carefully edit and reedit my blog posts (but still typos creep in).  I focus upon commenting on information that is in the public domain.  However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine the borders of public, quasi-public, and private online.

I consider any information a person has posted online that is available to anyone with a browser (and is not hidden behind a privacy wall or password) material in the public domain.  I presume that if an author doesn’t want me to read something they won’t post it online or, at the very least, will post it into a closed forum or other controlled space.  However, it seems that more and people are posting things online that they consider to be quasi-private or safe places that no one they know knows about.  While I find that a strange conception, it is important for one to consider this on two levels.

First this seems to indicates changing ideas of privacy and divergent perceptions of public/private divides.  Second, and more practically, authors who post in this fashion need to consider the fact that people they don’t think will see what they post will in fact see it.  I’m not sure what to make of the first point.  If someone posts comments on a blog that they think isn’t findable but I have found it am I supposed to ‘know’ that it is really private and advert my eyes?  I’m left wondering how am I supposed to really know.  That brings me to the second point, which I find easier to make sense of.  If you don’t want someone to read what you are posting don’t put it out there.  At the very least place it behind a password or make it totally anonymous.

At the core of things we can all take a step forward and consider our digital citizenship.  We should, I think, start from the perspective that anything we put online might be seen by anyone.  If we want a limited circle of folks to see our posts then we need to take a little bit of initiative to place our work into a quasi or totally private space.  Put a header somewhere saying "read but don't repost." Or, better yet  use an old fashioned paper diary.

Ultimately the best approach is to be aware.  Everyone from acquaintances to potential employers check people out online.   Our governments and large corporations do it industrial scale, but we are all out there in cyberspace.  The best approach is to make an informed decision each time we consider posting, texting, blogging, or emailing something.   If it's about someone, ask yourself if you would say it to them face-to-face.  If its a rant consider calling up a good friend first.