Privacy online

One of the chief claims in Helen Nissenbaum’s book, Privacy in Context, is that there is a dimension of privacy that is not captured by the other analyses we have read: privacy in public. I can be out in public and yet the information about who I am and where I am going is effectively private. It’s privacy by anonymity. If you follow me or plant a tracking device on me, then this privacy is lost.

There is an analogy with the internet. When we use internet services, we are effectively leaving our private spaces and entering the spaces controlled by companies. In that way, using the internet is like being out in public. Where things are going wrong, she thinks, is that we think of ourselves as enjoying the privacy of anonymity. But we’re actually being tracked and followed.

That is why people worry about the loss of privacy on the internet. It is also why the solutions proposed under the heading of transparency and consent fail to address the problem. We’re being tracked but don’t think of it that way. Various efforts to get us to consent or appreciate what is going on all fail: we don’t read the small print, don’t think it through, or need to use the services enough to sacrifice our privacy.

Our discussion

We started out with drawing some useful distinctions. For example, Lane said that he thought there was a significant difference between getting an ad to go along with a particular search or email and being remembered, such that the ads track your past searches, emails, and so on. Claire said she was not especially bothered by computers aggregating information about her; it would be different for her if there were a person looking at the information.

Ben and I shared stories about cases in which social media companies seemed to know too much. In my case, I have had social media sites suggest connections with medical doctors. Yikes. Ben related the story of a friend who had not told Facebook she was in a relationship and was surprised when Facebook seemed to know that it had ended (it served up ads about recovering from a break up, or something like that). Double yikes.

Leah and Chris noted that there might be more to be said for transparency and choice than there seems to be. People use sites like Facebook knowing that their messages are quasi-public. So they are more circumspect in what they say and disclose.

Taylor and Gabe reminded us that private companies are not the only entities with interest in our private information. Governments are capable of getting ahold of all the information that has been gathered and are certainly gathering quite a bit themselves.

At the end, we returned to Nissenbaum’s idea that the standards for online privacy should be derived from analogies with real life activities and institutions. So we suggested that if the government is not allowed to snoop in real life, it should not be allowed to do so online either. Similarly, if employers are not permitted to ask employees if they are, say, planning on starting a family, they should not be allowed to pay Facebook for highly accurate predictions about whether their employees intend to start a family either.

Key concepts

  1. Privacy in public.
  2. Nissenbaum’s contextual approach to regulating privacy online