Thoughts on privacy and location: nosey neighbours and norming

This post is the extended version of the notes and research I made to prepare for a talk I gave at Local Social Summit 2010. Hence the length and odd format – if you’re thinking about or researching privacy, location and social media hopefully there’s some useful things here. Have a look at my Delicious bookmarks tagged privacy and location if you want to see the raw links…

Privacy is a complicated issue, to say the least. Giants like Facebook and Google regularly trip over it and look uncertain if not clumsy in their approach to it. Individuals are often either surprised to learn that this is an issue for them, or overly cautious about how they use the web.

Even as I started the talk and begin to write this post, I’m thinking of another post I need to write on the subject, along the lines of “designing for privacy”. It’s an issue everyone from developers to media and brand owners need to consider when thinking about the social web.

This is where I got to…

Privacy is a complex issue: Complex, but we keep trying to over-simplify it. Some talk about it as invioable right, without going into detail about what it entails. Web companies try to wish it away as an issue – I find it amazing that people as smart as Google CEO Eric Schmidt can use the“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” argument or Mark Zuckerberg can try to insist that the argument has finished and publicness-as-the-default has won.

Privacy is a proxy issue for people’s hope and fears about the web

In discussions I hear or read “Privacy!” thrown in like a rheotorical grenade. Bang! Stop everything! Privacy is under threat, and like motherhood and apple pie it is too precious to put at risk.

I sense that “privacy” is sometimes a catch-all term to encompass things that make people uncomfortable, their unease with social and cultural change that growing numbers of them realise is happening as a result of the web.

Privacy makes good headlines

Since I started researching for Me and My Web Shadow a couple of years ago, the number of stories about Facebook, Google and privacy in the mainstream media has grown. Last summer saw useful initiatives like make the headlines and then be hi-jacked by insurance aggregators as a PR story, while the Daily Mail criticised BT “spies” who “trawl internet” conversations to find people having problems with the firm.

These stories are worrying because they raise fears about privacy without looking closely at the issues or giving practical advice.


People are often unaware of what they are revealing about themselves

Geo-tagging your photos can give away a lot of information about you, but many people don’t realise they are doing it. A project by a interesting bunch of security experts called I Can Stalk U is trying to raise awareness about this by using a crawler to gather information about where people are when they post photos to Twitter and then Tweeting an @ message to let them know (see the post about Educational stalking for a related initiative by a secondary school English teacher).

Even the very digitally literate get the odd scare, as Shea Sylvia’s story The Night I Was Cyberstalked on Foursquare shows.

The privacy debate in society may take place at a local level

It could well be that it is at a local levels that people face the implications and consequences of online publicness and start to work out where they draw the line between public and private, how the new social norms will work.

If local authorities are happy to abuse laws designed to combat terrorism to investigate and surveil their citizens for petty offences, it is likely that sooner or later we’ll hear of some bright spark trying to use geo-tagged photos and Tweets to prove parents are lying about the school catchment area they live in or not recycling their plastics in the appropriate way.

Privacy is not a personal matter

Writing Me and My Web Shadow coincided with my less geeky friends (“Hotmail friends” as Danah Boyd, once put it) really committing to Facebook, going past the addiction and over-enthusiastic social games phases and starting to use it as part of their everyday lives.

It became clear to me that what I did with my Facebook privacy settings and vice versa affected us all. If I post photos of people online, I make some decisions about their web shadow for them.

Discussion and social norming are required for us to work out how privacy works within our actual social networks. This is something we can and will all take part in…

Privacy is a fluid concept

Bill Thompson puts it really well in a talk he gave to the Lift Conference. Privacy as we understand, or understood it, is a new concept and one which may disappear or change radically.

The notion of people being happy to trade away their privacy is wishful thinking

Many people want to be in control of what appears about them in the public domain. Witness the “whitewalling” trend among young people spotted by (again) Danah Boyd. They want and need access to Facebook, but in order to remain in control of what is on their wall, who tags them where, they close down their accounts completely (temporarily) while they are not online.

Innovation can solve privacy issues

Sharing my location is useful, but sharing it permanently with anyone in the world who knows how to look for it is an unattractive proposition. Services like Glympse set a precedent for handling privacy differently from presuming openness is what people want – you can use it to send your location to people or broadcast it but after a period of time you choose – say a couple of hours – that information is deleted. In a similar vein Whapee is a photo-sharing service that lets you geo-tag photos anonymously.

Maybe “personal data management” is a better description than “privacy”

Obviously it is not – it is not very pithy for a start – but you catch my drift. What we talking about with privacy in the context of the social web is not “the state or condition of being free from being observed or disturbed by other people” (as my computer’s dictionary puts it), but being in control to some degree or other of what others observe or how they are able to disturb you.

We need to stay close to users’ perceptions of privacy

Point is, privacy, what privacy is, how people understand it and what they want from it is changing all the time. Different users will have different points of view, different personal policies. If you commissioning or building services and spaces in the social web you need to understand where they are at right now.

Privacy is a design issue

Perhaps I mean an innovation issue, and we’ve covered that above, but I suspect that applying design thinking to how users data, their privacy/publicness will be affected by a service would be useful. It is certainly something to be borne in mind from the outset in the development process.

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