Privacy is about Context

April 25, 2010

I admit to being one to say that privacy is dead. At a presentation I gave to lawyers on social networking a few weeks ago, the first thing I said is that there is no such thing as privacy…in the context of the Internet. With Facebook’s recent changes to its policies, people are claiming (again) that privacy is dead. Robert Scoble says we’re an inch closer now, thanks to Facebook, and many seem to agree.

At this point, privacy has become one of those polarizing topics. You are either on the side of it existing and thus demand more controls from companies or through federal regulation, or you are on the side that it’s dead so people should shut up and move on already.

I think there is a middle ground, called Context.

To say privacy is completely dead, that it is an illusion, leads me to think that identity fraud must also be an illusion. If privacy is dead, then every snippet of information about me, from my third grade teacher to my calculus grade in undergrad to my complete medical history is available to the public. My credit card information, anything I have purchased in the last three days, three months or three years. Where I’ve lived. Who my car insurance provider is, who my health care insurance provider is, whether or not I have been to the dentist, last time I got gas and where and anything else that can be tracked is publicly available, if privacy is dead.

If privacy exists, then none of that information is available.

Clearly, neither side is completely correct. Companies like Facebook, it can be argued, are forcing us closer to non-existent privacy, but that, too, leaves out context. We forget, in this world of over sharing, there is still some information that is private, by law or because we choose not to share it.

Medical histories, prescription drugs, genetic predispositions…they are still private because the context of that information keeps it that way. Now, that context may change. There’s an article in the Chicago Tribune today about therapsits Facebooking or Googling patients, and vise versa. But for now, the context remains the same.

So as the arguments over privacy continue to rage, take a minute to think about context. Under what context is information considered private? And should it remain that way, or is the context changing for whatever reason? I imagine there are people who wouldn’t mind having their complete medical history public, but then you have to think about the social implications of such an action. Whether or not we admit it, we make judgments about people. Knowing your medical history may provide the wrong impression because assumptions are made.

Just take a minute and consider the context. Privacy doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing issue. We are clearly better served in a context where our information is useful and beneficial when publicly available, but in another context, we may be irreparably harmed. Companies like Facebook and Google are forcing us to look at privacy in context, and we would be wise to oblige.