Thoughts on Systems

Emil Sit

Mar 9, 2007 - 3 minute read - Personal privacy

Privacy, the Internet, and me

I’ve always been careful not to reveal much personal information online and often distrust online vendors. Some of my friends are thus surprised that I have a homepage, a blog and now a tumblelog. However, compared to other friends just a few years younger than me, my online self is decidedly modest; those friends enthusiastically fill out their profiles on the latest social networking platforms and blog about their everyday experiences in great detail.

This difference was recently discussed in a New York Magazine article titled “Say Everything”; describing the fear of having personal information online, the author Emily Nussbaum notes:

[…] the standard response I’ve gotten when I’ve spoken about this piece with anyone over 39: “But what about the perverts?” For teenagers, who have grown up laughing at porn pop-ups and the occasional instant message from a skeezy stranger, this is about as logical as the question, “How can you move to New York? You’ll get mugged!”

A comment thread over on Bruce Schneier’s security blog is filled with more Constitutional concerns over the erosion of privacy; an anonymous commenter writes:

People lose their privacy because they have no idea how much they used to have. I bet less than one in ten (and I think I’m being extremely generous) are even aware of any of the above threats, and thus don’t see the encroachment. Or worse, know but think the authorities are fully justified in taking advantage of them, and have no idea how much they’ve lost.

Of course, having a blog or a homepage is not what makes it possible to find out about more me. Unlike the John Smiths of the world, it is very easy to find out more about me; I participate in many public activities that leave their mark online, from mailing lists to research conferences to the occasional ultimate team. By publishing my own information, I can choose what people see first and what I find important. This is better than the alternatives: letting other people decide what is important or simply not doing anything at all (just as the most secure computer is one that is powered off and locked in a vault).

Putting up a homepage, a blog, and participating in social networks are just examples of how we use technology to make connections that we may have lost in Western society. In past centuries, I would have had the privacy spoken of by the commenter on Bruce Scheneier’s blog; my information wouldn’t be aggregated in a giant database. But I also would have had stronger relationships with my neighbors and community.

I worry sometimes that the people with tubes aren’t passing laws that comprehensively and uniformly protect the use of our personal information. That there aren’t yet economic incentives for credit card companies to develop protections against identity theft. But, people are working on things on the legal front as well as exploring technical ideas like examining our online surface area, managing our attention, and managing and sharing data anonymously. And things will improve when today’s teenagers become senators and professors.

Until then, we experiment with managing our online selves, learning to be careful about what we share and how we share it. We have learned etiquette for using mobile phones and made them the new garden fence. The use of blogs to document and share personal experience and practical knowledge with others is becoming more mainstream. Those on the cutting edge use twitter and campfire to provide ambient intimacy and virtual context.

This blog is part of my explorations of this spectrum. Say hello!