Privacy Anxiety

Mr. Zuckerberg states that new Facebook services can cause anxiety over privacy, but that this anxiety subsides in time. He cites an example from 2006 when 1 million or 10 percent of the then user base protested the news feed service that provides updates about what friends are doing. Today, he states, Facebook users would state that you couldn’t have Facebook without this feature.

Anyone can get used to anything, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing, nor do I think that’s very good logic. Prisoners of war and abused children get used to terrible conditions to survive, but now one would argue that’s the case.

Mr. Zuckerberg isn’t torturing soldiers or beating up little children. The service updating others on what you are doing, however, can lead to serious consequences. It has been documented that burglars will review the pages of Facebook users to identify houses where no one is at home so they know it’s safer to burglarize them. Autocratic regimes analyze Facebook friend networks to roll-up dissident networks. Facebook has been steadily making personal information more and more public.

Many users may not be “getting used to” the reduction in privacy related to these services because they don’t realize it’s happening. The only reason my wife is aware of the every changing Facebook terms is because of me. Facebook recently apologized for its stealth like release of the new facial recognition services that automatically suggests tags.

Is a reduction in privacy bad for your health? If we assume it is, then should there be a warning label on all sites that collect information to alert users? “Warning: The FTC has determined that the more personal information you provide to 3rd parties, the more likely you are to be a victim of identify theft.” If users still want to smoke the cigarette, well, they’ve been warned.

We generally don’t sell cigarettes to minors because we think that as a minor they do not have the maturity to make that decision. Do we think the 20 million minors on Facebook are able to make good decisions on privacy? Scottish authorities want parents to watch their children online. Apparently the Scotts don’t think minors make good decisions.

It’s like the proverbial frog and boiling water. If you drop a frog into boiling water, he will hop out. If you slowly increase the heat, he will sit in it and boil to death. Is Mr. Zuckerberg slowly turning up the heat on us?

Perhaps Mr. Zuckerberg is slowly boiling our privacy to death and us along with it.

So does the anxiety subside over time because Facebook users (1) learn that their privacy isn’t that important in the brave new world of social media; (2) don’t have a clue to begin with what the consequences of their actions are; (3) learn to live with the anxiety; or (4) know Mr. Zuckerberg is right and that the privacy advocates don’t understand the new world Mr. Zuckerberg has created.

I think the answer is that none of us really know where we are going in a world where some suggest sovereign countries ought to send ambassadors to Facebook. It is not acceptable to roll out stealth services inconsistent with privacy expectations. Users need to be informed. Users also need to responsible. Users do not understand the implications of their actions, but nor do we do a very good job of educating them. What is private varies by generation, culture, education, tech savvy and who knows what else.

Movements rarely begin or end with a big bang. It didn’t gain it’s users overnight (thought it does seem that way sometimes). If Facebook erodes users privacy to the extent that there are real or perceived grievances for a certain percentage of users (I have no idea what that tipping point is), other social networks that have greater privacy protections will pick up the slack. If you think Facebook is a juggernaut that can’t be stopped, just read the comments from The Official Facebook Blog where users were informed of the facial recognition and auto tagging feature. They were almost invariably negative. Though over 13,000 users “liked” the blog post announcing the feature.

I am an active Facebook user, but I am always updating my privacy settings.

Just remember, one day, the wolf did show up.

Note: Apparently, the boiling frog metaphor doesn’t work in real life. If you drop a frog in boiling water, it probably dies instantly. If you slowly turn up the temperature, it will eventually try to get out.

One thought on “Privacy Anxiety

  1. Pingback: Infographic: Do You Care About Privacy on Your Cell Phone? – Nicholas Jackson – Technology – The Atlantic « Next Practices

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