Privacy is all the rage these days. Suddenly, in light of all of the Press about Facebook and its new privacy (or not) settings, it’s an issue on everyone’s lips and under the control of their computer keyboards and mice. I guess I’ll ponder it here as well.
It dawned on me that the game was changing about a year and a half ago when I was using Gmail to work with a caterer to plan an association function. You see, I had been emailing back and forth with the head of catering at one of Chicago’s better business venues about having a special cake made for the 100th anniversary of the Special Libraries Association. Before I knew it, there were ads from local bakeries about speciality cakes appearing in the right sidebar of my Gmail account. There were also ads appearing about other things related to what was in my emails. Can you hear Jaws music yet?
I thought it was kind of creepy, sure. But I was playing around in a host of social media environments as part of my job, and in doing so I was becoming very aware of just how transparent our lives really are becoming. People directories such as 123 People, Pipl and Spokeo can really open your eyes if you start plugging a few names into them. You may have a sense of privacy, but most everything you do in electronic environments gets tracked and leaves breadcrumbs these days for one purpose or another, whether under the auspices of marketing or Homeland Security.
I recently attended a conference for the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP) , a group of independent information hounds who really know how to track stuff for their clients. If I had any doubts about my hunch that privacy was becoming harder to protect, they were dispelled when I heard some of the speakers there who let me know in no uncertain terms that I was not the only one finding out way more than I had a right to know about people.
Let’s face it, we’ve always told our children not to put anything on the Internet that you wouldn’t want on the front page of the New York Times, so why are we surprised to now find out that this stuff gets archived and becomes searchable? Those same algorithms that are churning behind the scenes to deliver relevant search results and amazing productivity tools that are streamlining and integrating our lives are also grinding away at our own information.
There is another issue that goes hand in hand with this one that folks outside of the information field are sort of missing. It is the one about people making money off their innovations and being able to sustain a living from them. These new technologies have been so wonderful and so abundant, dropping into our browsers so frequently that it feels like Christmas morning almost daily for digital junkies, and we’ve become used to them being offered for free. We forget that at some point someone has to make some money in order for this creativity to continue. Otherwise, they will all have to go back to their day jobs. This was, in fact, the original intent of copyright law – to reward innovation and creativity so that it could continue.
As I’ve been preaching the elements and implications of these new channels, I’ve been cautioning people to focus on the relationships and not the channels, because the channels are fleeting. Part of the reason for that is because the world is flatter and innovation can come fast and furiously from anywhere, and part of it is because tools such as Twitter and Facebook are still trying to figure out how to monetize their offerings in the face of exponential strains on their systems and global competition. I’m not condoning a “pounce now, ask for forgiveness later” policy aimed at consumers, but I am cautioning consumers to be aware of what’s going on and make an effort to get smarter. There are some simple things you can get in the habit of doing:
- Before you click on the “I Accept” button, maybe it would be a good idea to grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and read the license agreement first. If you don’t want to be suprised later, this is a good practice. If you don’t like what you read, don’t accept and go find some other application. There’s a new one every day, and there are for-fee services which give you more privacy in return for the monthly fees. Repeat Step 1 for each new application.
- For the channels that you are using, make it a point to go into the “Settings” section and check out all of those pesky little tabs for your various security choices and set them accordingly. This includes the settings for all of those little games that people play on Facebook, like Mafia Wars and Farmville. If you don’t understand them, most of these sites have FAQs and forums. This may take another coffee or glass of wine. (Along these same lines, be sure that you have decent security and malware scanners installed on your machine. You can find reviews of these readily available online.)
- Get an account with an RSS reader and start following some blogs that keep you informed about this stuff. Mashable , ReadWriteWeb, TechCrunch and many other social media and technology related blogs have been posting step-by-step directions for increasing your privacy on Facebook. There’s a treasure trove of information out there, and you can bookmark it on Delicious!
- Join the conversation in a meaningful way to help these companies figure out responsible ways of monetizing themselves and creating more wonderful tools that we can share. Jumping on the “I’m mad as hell and I’m gonna quit Facebook but I haven’t got any better ideas” bandwagon isn’t helpful.
- Don’t do anything online that you wouldn’t want on the front page of the New York Times. Truth is, most of our lives would seem pretty unremarkable to most other people, and other than my credit card number or other numbers that could lead to identity theft, I really don’t care who knows most of what I post.
I see that MySpace is now responding with new privacy settings. I’ll have to go read about that, but I’m not betting the farm on the privacy myth.