Privacy and social media

I was at a meeting last week at which one the speakers said this (roughly paraphrased):  15 years ago, the amount of data visible on a typical Facebook user’s profile page would have required a warrant to collect (and the warrant would have been difficult to get). 100 years ago this amount of data probably couldn’t have been collected, at least not at reasonable cost.

I think he’s probably right. Empirical data, rather than academic theorizing, has consistently shown that people are willing to go public with an amazing amount of data about themselves. This decision may be pragmatic: being visible brings benefits that outweigh the risks; it may be ignorance of what those risks are; it may be the inability to understand, in a visceral way, just how public something posted on the internet is and how long it will last. As far as I know, there’s been little concrete research on this issue.

This massive release of personal data is changing the discussion of what privacy is and what its role in society should be. This is especially true in places like the U.S. where the relevant law is expressed in terms of what the social expectation of privacy is — so that the boundary between public and private moves “automatically” as society changes.

But it’s worth reminding ourselves that little more than a 100 years ago, nobody had any privacy in the sense that everyone in your village or town knew everything about you, including everything about your whole life history and that of your parents and grandparents and so on. Until about 100 years ago, almost nobody was ever alone, either inside or outside. The whole idea of privacy is an invention of urbanisation where, for the first time in history, someone other than a hermit could act anonymously. It’s also an invention of secularization since, in most religious traditions, God is conceived of as omniscient so that no human could act anonymously or invisibly in a deep sense.

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