Saturday, February 19, 2011

Did the Internet kill privacy?

That's the question asked by CBS. To emphasize the public nature of the internet they talk about the case of Ashley Payne. I blogged about her in a previous blog that has disappeared from the face of the internet, but her story is not unusual. She was a teacher who took a vacation in Europe and posted the pictures on Facebook. One of them had her holding a glass of wine and a beer. Someone complained in an anonymous email, and she was giving the option resigning or being suspended. She chose to resign, but is fighting to get her job back.

So has the internet killed privacy? Is the plight of Ashley Payne and others who have found their lives radically changed by information they thought was secret being exposed online the fault of the internet? Is it the nature of the internet to expose everything? Is our choice to live with our every secret potentially exposed or remove ourselves from modern society?

I don't think the internet has killed privacy. But the people who use the internet have dealt privacy some serious wounds. Between companies gathering all the data they can get their hands on and the government doing the same (admit it or not) it is almost impossible to maintain any level of privacy. Even if you never go online you leave an unbelievable trail with information on your spending habits, medical conditions, and general interests. If you don't have a credit card or checking account you might keep your spending habits under wraps.

If you don't have a credit card or checking account I'm not to sure you have a computer to read this on, so the privacy perils of the internet may not concern you. Some perils are understood by most people. Virus' and spyware are easy to understand. But the bigger problem - or less guarded against - is human nature. Everyone has, to a greater or lesser degree, a desire to be noticed or recognized, a desire to know secrets, and once we know them, a desire to tell them. The internet makes it possible to do all three. And do them while having the illusion of being secret about it.

It's that last part that is the biggest problem. We place things online, whether it's on Facebook, on a blog, or on a personal web server we think is private because we only give friends access. The fact is, if it's connected to the internet then the possibility someone else will get the information and spread it is there. If it's on a site like Facebook it's a lot more likely. If it's on Facebook and you have more than 2 or 3 friends it becomes almost a certainty. It makes us our own worst enemy. We want to share information, but we also want to control what happens to it after we share it. Unfortunately you can't require signing a nondisclosure agreement before friending someone on Facebook or your personal website. Well, you could, but you wouldn't very popular.

For someone like a teacher it becomes almost inevitable. If you share things online and some of those things might be considered objectionable they will come back to haunt you. All it takes is someone to share them and someone with a gripe to decide to use it against you. It may seem like a stretch, but Ashley Payne can tell you it's a short one.