Is the idea of privacy simply a long-lost memory?
When I joined Facebook six years ago, it was a social networking site only open to college kids. When I joined, I had to have a .edu email address and join my college network. Networks were rather small and since I wasn’t really close to anyone at my school, I rarely used Facebook. Apart from status updates, the only other thing available was to join local groups such “I hate people who walk slowly over the Unispan!” or “I wish I had a girl’s superpowers so I could wear tight, revealing clothes in the middle of winter.” (Yes, these were real groups that existed.) Due to Facebook’s college students-only policy, MySpace was the dominating social network since it was available to nearly anyone with an email address (of any kind).
I never dreamed that by the end of the decade, I’d be forced to choose between my desire for keeping my information private or having it broadcast — not only to my 200-plus Facebook friends but also to advertisers who want to fine-tune the ads they target at me or sites that want to let you know that I “Like” their brand or product.
Today, Facebook is open to anyone and currently boasts more than 400 million users globally. In addition to group pages, it now has features such as applications (FarmVille, ZooWorld), Like (formerly Fan) pages, Share, and Facebook connect to connect your profile page with other sites on the Web. What used to be a small networking site among college students is now a social behemoth that can broadcast nearly anything almost anywhere in a matter of seconds.
Some people will argue that once you post your information out on the Internet, in any way, you can’t expect it to be private. These people view the Internet as the information “town square” — in other words, the public information areana. In the past, I would have agreed with that to the extent of the information not being excluded from public searches (Google, Bing, etc.).
But to give the impression that a person’s information can be kept private while finding subversive ways to keep it public is misleading. In the six years I’ve been using Facebook, I’ve watched the social network giant cross that line time and time again. There are enough stressors and things to worry about in this world — Facebook’s complicated privacy controls shouldn’t have to be one of them.
Which makes me wonder whether the “town square” people are correct: is the idea of privacy on the Internet dead? Even though you think you have your Facebook profile under tight lock and key, has Facebook recently changed that one little loophole that makes it so some of your information is still public? Can Twitter really guarantee that all of your tweets will always be private without the possibility of them ever appearing in real-time searches? Even Google gave me a scare when they rolled out Buzz that automatically selected Gmail contacts to “follow me.” (I’ve since disabled Buzz and don’t use it.)
The Internet is not foolproof. Its security standards are not the equivalent of a computer housing government intelligence. Internet users (this includes me) are foolish enough to think that they can still hold some measure of privacy and security just like in their own brick-and-mortar homes. But even brick-and-mortar homes get broken into and robbed. The same is true for the Internet. Facebook can be hacked and all your information within minutes can be sold and disseminated to identity crooks all over the world before the perpetrator is caught. (I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already.)
Now, I’m not a fuddy-duddy who constantly fears the worst and is afraid of the big, bad Internet. The Internet has allowed for many conveniences:
- lower prices on products,
- the ability to discover (and possibly purchase) discontinued products,
- friendships with people all over the world,
- reconnections with long-lost acquaintances,
- a wealth of information at a person’s fingertips.
But the fact of the matter is, we’re all a bunch of bumbling fools trying to figure our way around the Internet. Not even the United States government has figured out how to regulate Internet privacy and various Internet activities including virtual bullying or copyright laws on blog publishing. The advent of the Internet sneaked up on us, leaving us bewildered on how to tackle the challenges it presents; from the elite minds in academia to the ordinary citizen, very few of us have proposed lasting, productive solutions.
In the meantime, what we all need to realize and come to terms with is this: we cannot expect complete privacy on the Internet. We may hope for some semblance of privacy, but we need to realize that once we communicate something that can be broadcast to multiple individuals at once, privacy no longer exists.
Perhaps those anti-Internet fuddy-duddies are onto something: they have retained their privacy. But I also probably have a lot more “friends.”
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