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Don’t Look Now, But Online Privacy May Be Gone for Good

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Privacy is gone, and most users don’t seem to want it anyway.

Our privacy has apparently gone missing. But most of us hardly notice because our technology – phones, social media, multiplatform entertainment – works really well, and we like using it…a lot. In the digital age of real-time access, calls for privacy still resound. But these concerns ring in unison with the ever increasing collection of everything, from what we ate for dinner to our shoe size, ailments, relationship status and search histories.

When you add self serving company policies and confusing legislation to the mix – not to mention an increasing willingness among users to serve up their privacy on a virtual silver platter – it becomes clear we are in the post privacy age. The question is, does anyone even care? (Get some background reading on privacy in What You Should Know About Your Privacy Online.)

Closets and Housetops: The Modern Definition of Privacy

To understand where our privacy went, we need to jump back to the 19th century and an 1890 treatise in the Harvard Law Review from Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren titled "The Right to Privacy." This long enduring document lays out the modern definition of privacy and serves as a harbinger for things to come.

Hauntingly, Warren and Brandies’ language sounds as if it were written minutes ago in a blog post – not 120 years ago. For example, consider this passage: "Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step, which must be taken for the protection of the person…and for securing…the right to be let alone."

Further, the Harvard Law review piece speaks of "instantaneous photographs" (sound familiar?) that invade the "sacred precincts of private and domestic life." The sticking point from this work that leads us to 2012 and beyond is where the legal scholars refer to the "numerous mechanical devices" that threaten to make good the prediction that "what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops." Clearly, the erosion of personal privacy is something that’s been happening for quite some time.

But how did we get here? Now that we’ve moved from our closets to Web based housetops, modern privacy experts are pointing at three immediately identifiable catalysts in the loss of privacy.

  1. The widespread use of the Internet fostered by Google and the compulsive use of social media sites like Facebook
  2. The emergence of mobility and mobile devices, which connect everyone to everything all the time
  3. The public’s acceptance of some measure of surveillance under the guise of safety

The third point leads us directly to legislative proposals, such as the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which pervaded the privacy discourse and blogosphere rants in 2012. A key component of that bill describes so called cyber intelligence as "information…pertaining to the protection of a system or network from…theft or misappropriation of private or government information, intellectual property, or personal information." This language is ambiguous and confusing. It also presents users with a choice: private eyes focused on us and constantly trying to sell us something, the government controlling the Web, or both. (Learn more about CISPA in Tech In the House: CISPA Faces Congress.)

In the spring of 2012, the Obama administration threatened to veto the CISPA bill because of privacy concerns and a call for a more pronounced role for the Department of Homeland Security in protecting critical infrastructure, such as power plants and government installations from cyberattacks.

Yet legislative proposals tend to change with the wind of political whim and also move more slowly than technology itself. This means a key component to dissecting the privacy debate will likely remain in the purview of user behavior on public networks like Facebook, which sifts – and, by extension, controls – user information on a mass scale. (For related reading, check out 7 Signs of a Facebook Scam.)

Going Public Amid Privacy Concerns

Ironically, just as Facebook listed shares on the public markets for the first time via its initial public offering (IPO)in May 2012, the social media giant also found itself at the center of a lawsuit.

In the wake of the IPO, a class action lawsuit filed in California continued to loom against Facebook, with plaintiffs seeking $15 billion in damages for privacy violations. The suit consolidates 21 privacy lawsuits from more than 12 U.S. states in the face of accusations that Facebook tracks the activities of users, even after they leave the site and/or deactivate membership. Among the main offenses, the suit alleges that Facebook violates the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

But a more telling sign of the end of privacy as we know it was a January 2010 statement from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg has intimated that people are more comfortable than ever sharing private information online and that the new social norm is, in fact, no privacy at all.

The stats continued to bear that out in 2012. A May AP/CNBC poll revealed that three of every five Facebook users have no faith that their personal information is protected, despite the fact that four out of five respondents admitted they do not even bother altering their privacy settings on the site.

"What we post online will never go away," said Pierluigi Stella, CTO of Network Box USA. "We need to lean to pay more attention to what we say and what we post in places such as Facebook and Twitter. We act as though we are talking to just one person, in a one to one conversation. In reality we are shouting to the whole world, and anyone who wants to can "hear" us."

Stella goes on to say that once information is online, you can’t expect privacy, unless you take great care to protect it. Even then, he says, it’s a crap shoot.

Convenience and Entertainment > Privacy

These days, the overall consensus among leading privacy experts tends to be that all bets are off. The only choice left is the degree of convenience that we’ll continue to demand while eschewing anonymity. (Want to browse the Web without giving up personal details? Find out how in How to Browse the Web Anonymously.)

As information systems and public policy professor Alessandro Acquisti pointed out in his paper "The Economics of Privacy," privacy is now about the tradeoffs. In other words, choices we make as users and businesses involve weighing the pros and cons of revealing and allowing external access to personal information.

What Acquisti and others publicly fear about this post privacy culture is the normalization of or adjustment to a world where private information becomes habitually public. To that end, the trajectory doesn’t seem too promising. This is not because of companies or government entities that want to invade privacy but more due to the privacy debate contingent that carries the most weight: Those who demonstrate privacy concerns but do nothing to protect it.

For instance, research from the Ponemon Institute shows that almost three-quarters of U.S. adults claim they care about privacy but won’t do much to preserve it. This is a disturbing but very real trend with permanent effects when it comes to the question of whether our society has given its privacy away – and whether we can ever get it back.

Privacy: The Price We Pay

If the answer is to that question is "no," the new normal of a non-private world will be one in which no matter what we do or where we go, information about us will be collected, used and stored – forever. But then, maybe that’s just the price we pay for access to so many free online services. While we seem to devote a great deal of time complaining about our diminishing privacy, very few of us make the choice to pull back from the applications and online behaviors that increasingly put us at risk.


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Jabulani Leffall

Jabulani Leffall is an award-winning journalist and writer who attended journalism school at the University of Missouri. His work has appeared in the Financial Times of London, Dow Jones Marketwatch, The Baltimore Sun, Investor’s Business Daily, Variety, CFO Magazine, Compliance Week, Black Enterprise, the Los Angeles Business Journal and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications. He has also appeared on ABC World News and CNN as a commentator of business and world affairs. He has been a George Washington Williams Fellow for the Independent Press Association, where from 2002 to 2004 he studied the effects of subprime lending on poor communities.…