“You have zero privacy anyway, get over it”
Those words were uttered by Scott Mcnealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, in 1999. It made a big storm at the time in computing circles and left a lot of people outraged. This pre-dated Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, even Friends Reunited and so the age of sharing every intimate detail had not yet arrived but there were signs; in 1997 I and many of my friends at university had personal web sites on which we did share information. In fact, I had my CV available on my web site which I wouldn’t dream of doing now.
In reality, in 1999 privacy was an issue that was both important and not important to me. I was paranoid about my personal email and telephone calls being snooped on and I used PGP to encrypt my email. On the other hand, I happily gave out my name, address, email address, age, girlfriends name, my course at university and more on my university web page and my Tripod web page. Now days I am much more careful with my information and if it is online at all I try to restrict its visibility to just a few people but back then it wasn’t important to me.
I think there are two reasons for that. One reason is simply that web pages were new and exciting technology, and we all got carried away. The other is that individual web pages did not carry the same big-brother overtones that social networks do. When the data is held in one central searchable database it seems very different to many separate web sites. Back in 1999 we barely even had effective search engines, with Google being less than two years old, and so most people looking at a personal web site would be friends, family or colleagues. I first started to lock down my information when I realised that it could have a negative impact in the future. Future employers could easily search the internet for a name and refuse someone a job based on what they see.
With Facebook and other social networks, we are encouraged to share all sorts of personal information. Many people share their complete education history, work history, relationship status, religious beliefs, hobbies, favourite music, film and books, birthday, who they are friends with, status updates and photographs. All this information used to be exposed by default on Facebook, but if you sign up now it will at least mark these things for viewing by friends only. Even so, many teenagers have this information available to everyone and are not even aware that it could be any other way or why they might want that.
Search engines are a huge problem for privacy. Type a persons name into Google, and the chances are that you will find their social networking accounts and their photograph. You will also see personal directories such as 123people.co.uk which gather a worrying amount of information from social networks, the electoral roll, public records and so on. These directories and search engines make it very difficult to hide yourself from searches.
Another aspect of privacy is tracking. People have been worried for years about being tracked by advertising networks such as Doubleclick. (Now owned by Google.) A lot of people delete browser cookies on a regular basis to prevent this tracking. It is also possible to opt out of this tracking. More recently many websites have started to select adverts to show the viewer based not only on the tracking information but also on data from websites viewed. For example, last year I searched the Halfords website for toolboxes of a certain type. For about a week afterwards I saw adverts for toolboxes of the type I had been interested in shown to me on many web sites. (I normally block adverts, but I couldn’t at that time.) I could see this being very damaging if it showed adverts for something you wished to keep secret while someone else could see the screen.
In 2008 a company called Phorm tried to go even further. Instead of tracking you only through web sites displaying their adverts, they installed equipment at the heart of the BT network which would look at every web site visited and search made. They would then show adverts on selected websites and those adverts would be selected based on all of your web surfing! Needless to say there was an outcry and even questions by MPs.
Unfortunately the most intrusive tracking is now being entered into voluntarily. The Facebook account seems to have become the universal way to identify someone and lots of websites allow you to sign up or log in through Facebook Connect. The “Like” button has become ubiquitous as sites encourage you to share them with your friends. All of this means that Facebook has a vast knowledge of all the websites that you visit that use these things. This has even extended to a tie-up between Facebook and NHS Choices. The only way around that is to log out of Facebook and delete your browser cookies before visiting any other sites.
Facebook Comments, which allow comments to be left on blogs through your facebook account, are particularly intrusive because they link together your web browsing and your social network. If you enter a comment on a website using this system it will be shared back to Facebook and posted on your wall if you are not careful. That can tell everyone on your friends list what web site you were commenting on and what you said. That may be alright on many occasions, but perhaps more than you want to share on others. The rise of Facebook Comments also means that everyone must use their real name on these web sites. That has led many to ask if it is the death of anonymity. I would imagine that websites discussing sensitive issues are unlikely to use Facebook Comments for this reason. Even Disqus comments, a system which I use on this blog, can allow other people to track your comments from one blog to another. It does at least allow anonymous commenting in most cases.
Etsy and Google Buzz show a typical corporate cavalier attitude to private personal data. When Google introduced Buzz they simply added it to every Google Mail account, and made the personal address books of every user available through Buzz as a contact list. This “on by default” attitude caused a lot of bad press for Google and they quickly changed it to require activation by the user. More recently Etsy has done the same thing. People that signed up to buy and sell “all things handmade, vintage and supplies” suddenly found their accounts visible to all through Etsy’s new People Search. Feedback that they had left on purchases or on buyers suddenly exposed details of items purchased, and these details show up on search engines too. One woman has had some particularly embarrassing information exposed on Google right next to her CV. All this because the owner of Etsy would like it to become a social network.
The trend is towards sharing more and more information on the internet. I think Scot McNealy was right, although a few years ahead of his time. For all our efforts, privacy is dead, and voluntarily at that. I don’t actually see how it can go any other way though – recent events have shown that information cannot be kept secret any more. Fred Goodwin’s super-injunction could not prevent people from announcing that he was a banker. Dictators in the middle east were unable to prevent pictures and news reports from making it to our TV screens.
I believe this marks a cultural shift in attitude to privacy. In the last ten years people have started to live their lives in a much more open way and to share information and events on the internet in a myriad of ways. In a world where it is commonplace to show photographs of a drunken night out to everyone, or to discuss a relationship break up in public, attitudes to past actions must change. Employers searching out potential employees through Google are going to have to realise that everyone is human and no one is perfect. If they don’t see anything about a candidate to put them off, it probably means that the evidence has been hidden well! As a friend said recently, “These are the first generations to publish their entire lives in the public domain. Future leaders will doubtless hold juvenile views that they later discard and regret.” The public will have to realise that things done in the past do not accurately reflect the views of a politician in the present. If a persons entire past can be seen on the internet, people will have to be a lot more accepting.
It’s a brave new world.