“Every gram – sorry, byte – of personal information these feckless data-packrats collect on us should be as carefully accounted for as our weapons-grade radioisotopes, because once the seals have cracked, there is no going back.” – Cory Doctorow
Every day, all around the world, people are sharing enormous amounts of personal information and data via social networking tools. From photos, locations, interests and activities to the names, locations and relationships of those in our lives. While this sharing revolution has great benefits it also presents many challenges in relation to personal boundaries and privacy online. Increasingly, those who choose not to share – or to limit their sharing on their own terms – entreated to hostility, mischaracterisation or coercive admonishments to which they are rarely equipped to respond.
Having been subjected to such admonishments and the frustration of continually having to defend my choices (and rights), I decided it was time to share the resources and philosophies that inform my knowledge and philosophies of privacy online. I want others to know that it is both possible and desirable to engage in social and participatory media while maintaining relevant, healthy, intelligent boundaries and privacy settings that are appropriate to our own needs.
Three coercive frames
Over the past ten years of my life online, I have observed three coercive frames used to negate privacy:
1. The cynic: Privacy doesn’t exist (so don’t bother fighting for it)
2. The manipulator: The need for privacy is about secrecy/shame/hiding things (“what have you got to hide?”)
3. The bully: Privacy seekers are [insert social slur here]: naive, secretive, newb, laggard, paranoid, elitist, closed, locked-down, controlling, etc.
If these sound familiar they should. They’re the very same kinds of frames that are used to make anybody do anything they don’t want to do – they appeal to insecurity, fear and misinformation for their power. Rather than challenging the trap of a linguistic frame or reinforcing the integrity of our own position, many of us enter into the logic of the frame. George Lakoff, the preeminent voice of cognitive linguistics, points out, not engaging a frame is the key to denying its power (and their effectiveness in debate). Apprehending the highly coercive nature of privacy frames is a critical literacy for our times.
What is privacy?
“Privacy is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or information about themselves and thereby reveal themselves selectively. The boundaries and content of what is considered private differ among cultures and individuals, but share basic common themes.” (source: Wikipedia)
As Doctorow points out, one thing privacy is not is secrecy — although the two are routinely (and incorrectly) conflated. Privacy is what you seek when you close the bathroom door or get into bed with your significant other. Privacy is your inner world, free of some Orwellian thought police tapping into your every thought. And privacy is also whatever you are capable of establishing given the means available to you. While there is no doubt that our entire world is mediated by forces (seemingly) beyond our control, it doesn’t mean that we ought to submissively accept these conditions – or the further erosion of the rights we currently enjoy.
About a year ago I came across this great talk by American author, geek and civil liberties advocate Cory Doctorow. What I love most about this video, aside from Cory’s inspiring passion, knowledge and strength of conviction is how he articulates the most complex of issues in a language that is both accessible and engaging – with ample examples, distinctions and terms that are of great use to anyone interested in developing a working knowledge of their democratic right to privacy.
Increasingly, I find myself resharing it at least once a month – which is about how often I hear somebody conflating privacy with secrecy (and other misconceptions of what is properly a democratic right). As more and more of us adopt and adapt to increasing levels of sharing online, none of us can really afford to be in the dark where privacy, surveillance and data collection online. This will involve a lot of education – including some basic definitions about what privacy really means.
Establishing boundaries: You are what you share
While many privacy decisions are a matter of choice, we now have to contend with the prospect of maintaining our interpersonal relationships somewhat differently than we did in the past. What we tell a friend or family member may be mediated by how they share online – or vice versa. These are not especially technological, but social, issues.
Families, friends and businesses need to start having frank discussions about our differences in perception and attitude around boundaries and sharing (social, cultural and otherwise) and the kinds of social contracts needed for healthy, functional and productive social relationships.
Below are a selection of links for those of you who are interested in learning more about what privacy is (and is not) as well as the democratic rights and freedoms available to all of us.
Further reading and study: