Hartley Brody

Understanding Privacy in a Digital World

Web 2.0 was so revolutionary because of the fact that – for the first time in history – any individual could easily publish information that the entire world could see. Social media played a huge role in this movement. You could quickly share a picture, update a status or plan an event and have that content on display for everyone with a computer.

But then there was the privacy backlash. Sure, I might want to share some pictures with my college friends, but what about my coworkers? What if I want to publish something for my friends, but don’t want my parents to see it? What if I have a picture of me doing something awesome, but illegal?

This caused a lot of people to distrust the internet. They didn’t want their lives becoming an exposé that any random stranger could read about. To feed this privacy hysteria, there were a number of sensationalized stories about stalkers and robbers using information on the internet to ruin people’s lives.

As a young adult with a foot in “the real world” and one still in the fake life of college, I’ve struggled with the issues of what to share, and with who. And I definitely don’t always get it right.

Last year, I got kicked off the swim team because I blogged about my frustration with the sport. I wrote an article that I had hoped would explain my situation to friends and team mates, but my coach wasn’t too happy about it.

Some might say that the easiest solution to this problem is to take everything offline. Just stop publishing content and then there’s no chance you’ll get in trouble for it. But to me, that’s like saying don’t ever ride in a car, because then you won’t have to worry about car accidents. It just isn’t really practical.

Plus, I love sharing stuff with the world. It’s like a public bread crumb trail through life. The issue for me then, isn’t whether or not to publish, it’s how to do so and be smart about it.

Sometimes the decision is obvious. Don’t share anything about the conversation your roommate had with you about coming out of the closet. Definitely share the pictures of your child’s first Halloween costume. Don’t say anything about the surprise birthday party coming up, but it’s okay to talk about how much fun it was after the fact.

Over time, I’ve come to realize that there are three natural levels of “privacy” most people expect in ordinary conversations, depending on who has an interest in that information. As information is exchanged between individuals, there are different rules on how widely that information should be shared. Whether it’s a big announcement or a private secret, society has developed these unwritten but widely understood rules that dictate how information is to be shared.

I’ve attempted to codify these societal expectations and in an effort to help understand what to share and what not to.

Privacy Level 1 - Totally public information

This is the stuff that people naturally get excited about and want to share with the world. Wedding announcements. Getting into college. Winning an award. Like when your coworker comes back from an awesome vacation and you overhear her telling the same stories over and over to different people. There are some thing we just want to share with everyone, usually because we’re proud and are looking for a “wow, that’s awesome!” or a “congratulations!” from someone. It’s not necessarily vanity, it’s just a natural form of sharing that builds relationships and makes social interactions exciting. This is the stuff social media is great for.

I’ll skip 2 for a moment since it’s the hybrid.

Privacy Level 3 - Totally private information

These are things like secrets and private experiences that stay in a very tight group of people, if they even get shared at all. This is the type of skeletons-in-the-closet stuff that only your best friends know. Information like whether you’re considering divorce, or struggling with debt or planning a bank robbery. By default, no one besides you should know about this stuff. This does not belong online.

Privacy Level 2 - Mostly public information

Type 1 and type 3 are fairly obvious for most people. But type 2 is where things get tricky. This is the type of stuff that you want to share with almost everyone, but there’s a specific individual or group that should not see this. The “excludee” is usually either very powerful or else they could be injured if the information is shared. Sometimes both.

Maybe you’re really frustrated about your job and want to vent to everyone, except your boss. Maybe your business partner is a shit head and you want everyone to know, but you realize that if he catches wind, he’ll sue you. Maybe you want to share your feelings of disappointment about your athletic performance, but if your coach finds out, he’ll feel undermined.

This level of privacy expectation is fairly common. Any type of surprise has an excludee. Gossip is usually spread with the assumption that the people being gossiped about are the excludees. In competitions that involve strategy, the other team is the excludee.

By far, the most widespread occurrence of this level of privacy revolves around illegal activities that are socially acceptable, namely underage drinking. It’s usually done in fun situations that people naturally want to share. But what if your parents or teachers find out?

Often, there are ways that you can prevent the excludee from seeing this information yet still share it with everyone else. Sometimes, teens block adults from seeing what they share. People lock their Twitter accounts or hide their Facebook profiles from searches. But since the excludee varies depending on the nature and content of what you’re sharing, sometimes this doesn’t effectively block them for that piece of content.

Facebook gives you extremely granular controls. Twitter is either privacy level one, or else you’ve accepted the follower into your intimate privacy level three group. Blogging is entirely level one. Texting & email are usually level three. These levels exist on a continuum and there are many shades of gray in between.

As digital technologies make the free flow of information easier than ever, it is important to understand what you’re sharing and take a minute to consider who you might not want to share it with. If there is anyone that might potentially be upset or angered by the fact that you’ve shared this, consider if there is any way to effectively block them from seeing what you’re sharing. Sometimes there is, but oftentimes there isn’t.

If the information is extremely sensitive, there’s always a risk that a non-excludee will notify an excludee, and so even the most well-thought-out privacy scheme won’t be effective. Ultimately, everything that goes online could potentially be seen by anyone, if they are determined enough to find it.

I imagine we’ll be teaching our children these things next generation, as these rules become increasingly codified. While Web 2.0 has dramatically changed how information is shared in our modern society, it has also raised many issues since not every human interaction is meant to be exposed on that level of transparency. Understanding what you share and who it can be seen by is a fundamental first step in becoming a good citizen on the internet.

Double check your privacy settings for Facebook & Twitter.