# Privacy: It Used to Be Nobody's Business!

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on February 3, 2010


Last Thursday was Data Privacy Day. In recognition of this international celebration, TAP invited guest bloggers to present some of the basics of data privacy --within policy issues, the law, and of course, as individuals. Today TAP is pleased to provide an overview of how information technology changes privacy in many ways, by Joseph Lorenzo Hall, ACCURATE Postdoctoral Research Associate UC Berkeley School of Information Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy.

Privacy is the kind of thing you don't know you have until it's gone.

One minute, you're living your life, happy as pie, and all of a sudden you feel like you've been violated.  Sometimes this can be a false alarm; for example, when the pizza guy on the other end of the phone knows your address because you've ordered from Luigi's before.  Other times, it can feel very personal; like someone has torn down the walls while you're in the shower.

Why all this talk about privacy?

You may not have noticed it, but last Thursday, January 28, was Data Privacy Day.  Data Privacy Day is a day to celebrate our ability to keep some things to ourselves. In this post, I'd like to talk in layman's terms about privacy and how technology like the Internet affects privacy.

Privacy used to be a matter of "mind your own business". That is, before our globally-connected society could scarf down any and all news instantly, things were different.  What was public was mostly a matter of what things people chose to make public.  Many of our elder generations still feel this: wanting to know more about another person is not something to be proud of.

This day and age is quite different.  Where things were normally private in the past, they are increasingly becoming public, by default.  All those cameras that record you on the subway, at your favorite lunch spot, and in the parking garage?  Your Facebook profile? The view of your home from the street?  More than likely each of these views are public or can be with little effort.

A lot of this is a consequence of our increased technological capability.  Cameras are cheap.  Storage space for images, audio and video is even cheaper.  The Internet ensures that anything that can be reduced to a computer file can be shared almost instantaneously with the rest of the world.

So what, you may be thinking?  You have nothing to hide.  Well, ask yourself if you're comfortable walking out on the street naked.  It's not that we all have something to hide; it's that we feel more comfortable when we have control over what "leaks" out about us into the world.

Technology makes taking control of your digital self cumbersome. For example, have you ever wondered how your web browser knows that you want to see stories from your 07307 zip code when you go to a news site?  Well, that's because your web browser keeps a small piece of information, called a "cookie", from this news site in order for it to keep track of things you do when you visit them.  Though that's a pretty tame example.

Online advertisers do something similar to build a profile of you. This includes your age, gender, location, and what you like to read, eat, buy, etc.  How do you stop companies from doing this?  You have to know how to turn off cookies in your browser.  Even then, not accepting cookies will mean other sites who don't do these things can't remember you.  My own cookie practices are too complex to go into here; suffice it to say that having total control over this kind of stuff is not easy!  However, simply knowing that this is possible is often a large part of the battle.

Another hard-to-grasp aspect of how technology changes our sense of privacy is this: the internet has a hard time learning how to "forget".  It used to be that pictures would fade, video would age and such.  These days, it's not very hard to inadvertently cause something to last effectively forever.  So, you posted that picture of the bad haircut you got on Facebook or Flickr?  Don't be surprised if someone likes it so much that they save a copy.  You'll forget about it until your daughter's wedding when the groom makes a joke about your family's fashion sense.  The only way to anticipate these kinds of surprises is to think, each time you post something online, "How could my enemies/stalker/that-guy-who-is-suing-me use this against me?"  Whether or not you have enemies and stalkers is of course not the point here.  The idea is to pick something similar that you can use for a quick gut check.

Finally, the social component of how we deal with privacy can be the hardest one to navigate.  I'm sure you have a friend that likes to take a lot pictures.  Where do those pictures end up?  How do you know that a fun picture taken on a Friday night won't end up on the internet?  If you are the one that is the shutterbug, be conscious of this.  Think about possible consequences of posting a particular picture or video.

This brings me to my last bit of advice: use features of websites like Facebook, MySpace and Flickr that allow you to only show certain things to your friends.  If you ever have even the slightest reservation about posting something online, simply restrict it to your friends to make it not public.  Of course, this means you have to be a bit careful about who you "friend" on these websites.  We'll have to leave that discussion for another day.

Joseph Lorenzo Hall
ACCURATE Postdoctoral Research Associate UC Berkeley School of Information Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy