Changing Views of Privacy

If you’ve read the Radical for any length of time, you know that I’m a real digital junkie.  There aren’t many technologies that I haven’t explored and/or completely embraced, both in my professional and my personal life. 

While others—like my good friend Dina Strasser—are carefully thinking about the impact that technology is having on human interactions, I’m gleefully whizzing off to the gadget store to pick up the latest gizmo.

But for the past few years, I’ve started to wonder about the impact that digital solutions and services are having on privacy rights in our country.

I mean, think about itWe’re slipping microchips into the backpacks and clothes of our sons and daughters so that we can track them if they get lost.  We use similar devices to get instant updates every time that our teens are speeding in the family sedan. 

We use Google Latitude to mark our locations so that our friends can find us easily with applications on their cell phones, we are Twittering out the bars and restaurants that we’re visiting, and we’re even sharing lists of everything that we buy

My guess is that the users of these tools and/or services are convinced that their lives are being improved by new digital solutions that we could only imagine “back in the day”—and there is some truth to that:  If my daughter is ever missing, I’d want to be able to track her down, too. 

But I’m also becoming convinced that our freewheeling approach to what we’re willing to share is leading to a carefree—even careless—attitude towards privacy.

That’s why we don’t get all fired up when Mark Zuckerberg—Facebook’s founder—changes privacy settings constantly on his service, often with the end result being that more people can see and know more about us—and our friends—than we ever intended. 

That’s why we don’t question Google’s desire to track every web search that we ever make while signed in to their service or the purpose of Microsoft’s Index.dat file, which keeps a record of every file that you open on your computer that can’t be erased without a special application. 

That’s why no one gets all riled up when our government asks Internet service providers to keep a two-year record of every website we visit and email that we send.

That’s why we never question our local grocery store’s decision to track every purchase that we make through our MVP cards—as long as they’ll give us cheaper bacon and a couple of juicy coupons when we check out!

Now, I get it:  There are legitimate reasons to embrace every one of these digital applications. 

Google can provide customized search results if you are willing to let them look closely at the information you’re interested in, Facebook can help you make new connections if everyone is completely transparent, and the government can track down criminals if they have access to every email ever sent by every person working online. 

Those are good things, right?

But what will the consequences of this casual attitude towards digital privacy be twenty years from now when kids who have been raised in an era of unprecedented openness become the lawmakers of a new generation?

That’s an interesting question that I’m not sure I have an answer for—but the pessimist in me worries that we might be unintentionally giving away a fundamental piece of who we are, and I’m not all that comfortable with that decision.

I also wonder whether these are the kinds of conversations that we should be having with students in the 21st Century.  If a part of our job is to develop responsible citizens, wouldn’t that include lessons centered around the difference between what we CAN do with technology versus what we SHOULD do with technology?

Does this make any sense?

6 comments

  1. George W

    We have grown so accustomed to the convenience and now-ness of technology that so many of these questions seem unimportant. I think should feel like that frog in the gradually heated pot of water. I guess I do… I can’t feel it coming but I know things are not quite right.

  2. Angela Quiram

    I began wondering about this same idea recently. I saw a video (can’t think of where right now!) where it discussed that those of us over 30 look at privacy differently than those under 30. I agree.
    However, I do not believe that we should allow privacy to dissolve into nothingness, because we can. I think things have been moving so quickly and we don’t know the whole of anything related to the Internet and privacy unless we look closely for it. I knew some of the things you mentioned in your post, but didn’t know EVERYTHING and think of the things we DON’T know.
    When interacting with my 15, who only spends summers with me, the conversations are ridiculous. There is no one else out there who is trying to teach her to respect her own privacy for her benefit. So, when I try, I don’t get far, because of course 15 year olds know everything ;).
    However, when I have the same conversations almost daily with my 12 year old who does live with me constantly, she gets it. She is able to see and understand between my conversations and what she is being taught at school about the same types of issues, there is something to keeping some things private.
    I believe it an important issue and one that will not be solved without people working to solve it. Sitting back and letting it happen because it already is is not good enough.

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Charlie wrote:
    None of us would like our list of failures and shortcomings listed on our resume but googling an applicant now provides the good along with the bad.
    This is a great way to explain things, Charlie…I’d thought of this point many times but never heard anyone explain it quite like that.
    Makes it far more concrete…
    Bill

  4. Charlie A. Roy

    I’d imagine with the lack of privacy that the digital age brings the stakes for our children are higher. None of us would like our list of failures and shortcomings listed on our resume but googling an applicant now provides the good along with the bad. All the more important for our students to understand digital citizenship. We started a few years ago trying to explain this to our students and I hope we succeed. Perhaps their college facebook memoirs will be a little richer and feature less drinking pics.

  5. wmchamberlain

    Have you read any of the Heinlein books centered around Lazarus Long? I would suggest Time Enough for Love to start. He discusses some of these concerns and has had a huge impact on me as well.
    You may want to look at the Stainless Steel Rat series by Harry Harrison too. It also revolves around the idea of no privacy.
    I spent a lot of my impressionable years reading science fiction. Many of the past masters warned us through literature about what our world would look like if we weren’t careful. The days of the Blade Runner are fast approaching, but I don’t think there is anything we can do about it. Especially when our government seems to ignore our Constitution with the permission of the Supreme Court.
    My suggestion is to opt out of anything that you can that tracks what you do online…