Social Skills

Why I Don’t Value My Privacy

It’s time for me to stand up and say my piece.

I don’t give a fuck about privacy.

I don’t mean your privacy. You won’t find me in a tree outside your window. I swear. Not that I haven’t tried.

No, I mean my privacy. I don’t care if my personal information is online. I’m pretty mystified by people who do.

A Few for the Vault

I want to make clear that I’m not telling you to give away sensitive financial information. I’d like to say, “use your common sense,” but that doesn’t work on this topic. A lot of people have no idea what information is already out there or what kinds of things thieves are after. Some people see hackers in every shadow. Maybe this is you, or someone you know. So let me clarify.

Here are the things you should not share online:

  • Your passwords
  • Credit card numbers
  • Account & routing numbers or other financial access info
  • Tax and income figures
  • Your social security number

Even these can be shared online if it makes sense. You can give your SSN to your credit union via their secure site, perhaps for an online loan application.

Your Information is Not Secret

Other than the above, pretty much everything about you is already available on the internet. This includes: your address, your phone number (even the unlisted cell), your birth certificate, your criminal record, the house you own and its estimated value, your maiden name, your spouse’s name, many of the charitable donations you’ve made (and the amount), and probably your email address.

I can get all of that stuff right now if I want.

There is nowhere you can go to remove that information from the web. There are places you can go who will say they’ll remove the info, but they are lying. They will, however, spam the email address you enter at their site.

Village Life in 20X6

The internet has irrevocably ended the age of privacy. But most people don’t realize that the age of privacy was a very short period.

Up until the early 20th century, “privacy” was unheard of. Sure, you might be able to wash in private, but personal information was completely public.

People lived in small houses with large extended families. Everyone in the community knew everyone else, including personal history. If you slept with someone, the whole village knew. If you made a fool of yourself? The village knew. Your occupation, approximate wealth, the location of your home, your accomplishments and your crimes were all pretty much public knowledge. Sure, they may never have heard of you 100 miles away but you weren’t going to travel that far anyway. To the people who mattered, keeping secrets was hard.

This changed in a few select countries in the mid-1900’s. In the U.S. it happened after World War II, when middle-class vets had enough money to begin moving into subdivisions of cookie-cutter houses. The economic boom, the widespread use of automobiles, and the availability of cheap-but-decent houses created the perfect conditions for something never before heard of.

The nuclear family was born.

Suddenly, houses had a small number of people in them—each with a private room. The houses were spaced farther out, and were often removed from civic centers.

People think of the 1950’s as a time when people were fake; they put on a front of American dream perfection, hiding their secret frustrations and struggles. We think of the 50’s that way because it was the first time in history that this was possible outside of the aristocracy.

The Consequences

In the 1990’s the internet did little to change privacy. It was actually a place of total anonymity, where kids and 20somethings used funny handles to mask their true identities.

But those kids have grown up, and we use the internet for commerce, networking, and socializing.

That doesn’t work if I don’t know who you are. Use your real fucking name.

It doesn’t work if I can’t find you. Join LinkedIn and make your Facebook public.

It doesn’t work if I can’t reach you. Put your email address on your Facebook. If you get spam, meh. Spam filter will deal with it.

This can’t be put back in the box. The 60 year period where people could buy anonymity has come to an end. Not having a Facebook page is about as friendly as turning off the lights and pretending you aren’t home when a friend knocks on the door—it’s your right to do it, but it prevents communication and rubs people the wrong way.

How I Deal

Photo credit: "The Geisha Who Refused to Look" by Okinawa Soba

Geisha girls understand how important your privacy is, but they charge by the hour.

All in all this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. A lot of people are scared about their personal info being available to strangers. I credit this partly to misinformation (hackers will get into my email! Facebook will sell my home address to Somali pirates!), but I also credit it to delusions of grandeur. We like to think people are beating down the door to get our personal information, but we’re not that important. Sure, marketers want your contact info, but they can buy it from the Red Cross or your college alumni association. Unless you’re a senator you don’t have any enemies plotting how to use your relationship history to ruin you. (And if you are a senator your enemies will hire a P.I., so keep it in your pants)

My approach to this brave new world is to embrace it. I friend everyone who friends me, and I’ve met cool people that way. I make it easy to find my contact info, and I therefore have a reputation for being accessible and helpful. I end up getting invited to more awesome events, I network more in my field, and I reach a lot of people with my ideas.

I’ve found that the benefit of making my personal info public by far outweighs the cost. As the cost of privacy rises—a cost measured both in time and effort, but also in social opportunities and career opportunities—this will become true for more and more people.

What has your experience been with privacy, and have you “gone public”? Has the benefit outweighed the cost? And if you still try to protect your privacy—how successful do you feel you are?

L Days cover_front only_half size

My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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15 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Value My Privacy

  1. I agree with a lot of what you say here, but I’m not quite ready to declare privacy dead (as David Brin did in Wired in the mid-90s). I think there are two separate aspects that must be considered: Contactability and findability. While I think it’s always advantageous to increase your contactability, I don’t know that increasing one’s findability is always good.

    Case in point: I recently attending a seminar on how to create escape plans for people leaving abusive situations. A fairly sizable chunk of the program was devoted to finding ways to help these people be contactable (for job-hunting, etc.) without being findable (so their abuser doesn’t show up on their doorstep). It takes some work and constant vigilance, but it can be done and in those cases it should be done.

    To cite a different, less extreme example: I keep a LiveJournal for communicating with my friends. Because I wouldn’t necessarily want a potential employer to have access to this (I consider my LJ to be an extension of my living room, and I wouldn’t want them to have a camera in my living room either), I keep my posts friends-locked. Most of the people who read my journal know my real name, home address, and phone number, and I’d give it to any of the others in a heartbeat, but my real name and my LJ are not publicly linked in any way.

    Besides issues of deliberately attempting to control findability, there’s also the issue of trying to determine which instances of a name refer to which person bearing the name. As a test, I just googled my full name (first/middle initial/last) only 10 of the first 100 results referred to me (which was rather more than I had expected). The other links referred to 3, possibly 4, other people with whom I share my name. The Wikipedia entry for my name isn’t about me. The URL of my name isn’t mine. I’ve got the Twitter of my name with the middle initial because I made sure to grab it after finding that one of the “other mes” had grabbed the version without the initial. Online authentication and disambiguation still have a long way to go.

    • Good points about the specialized cases. Those are some good exceptions.

      While information privacy isn’t totally dead I do think there are some big differences between now and the 90’s. In the 90’s people saw technology making privacy more difficult to maintain, but they had no incentive to go along with it.

      Now, with social media, there is a high cost to trying to maintain privacy. You may seem antisocial to friends, or obsolete to employers.

      So while the shift has been possible since the 90’s, only since 2007 or so has there been strong incentive for the ordinary person.

  2. Well, the privacy scares have led all kinds of people to lock down the Facebook accounts so tight, it’s hard to find friends anymore. In that sense I get what you’re saying. If you’re going to be online, why not be online? But I’m a public person. I have a public blog, I meet people and publish. I know others who are scared and don’t want to meet people.

    I myself have been the victim of identity theft, or mis-match. A crime was committed in the late 90s or early 00s that used a fake name/email address that was mine. It left me feeling a bit dirty. But I trudge on.

    I have an app on my iPhone called White Pages. I typed in my name and it found me, my home, my wife, etc. It did find unlisted things as well.

    When I sit to think about it, I do feel like you. I would rather network than shell up. I do feel people have gone to an extreme on trying to hide who they are. So I’ll raise a voice with you. To Hell with privacy. Boo privacy, boo!

    • Ha! Thanks for the comment Urban.

      Do you think that the identity theft was a result of putting your personal information online? In other words, would using a fake name on the net or not giving out your email address have prevented it? Or were you just hacked?

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  4. mike says:

    my problem with the social media sites is not privacy. My issue is twofold. 1. they own everything you post and can use it for any purpose they want. 2. I believe in personal contact. Call me a fogey if you want but if you are trying to maintain real relationships, a facebook message just doesn’t cut it. you need real world contact. When writing a message, you don’t get all the subtext that you get when actually hearing their voice. Sure, facebook, and twitter are great for making contacts, but not friends. I care about friends.

    • Hi Mike,
      I would say (1) is a reflex of the privacy issue: you are giving up something that some people consider precious, in exchange for the benefits of using the social media site. Whether that’s worth it is of course your call.

      (2) is much more of a subjective judgment. To me, digital spaces are just an extension of geographical space. When I chat and joke with someone online it has value. In some cases I prefer digital contact over “personal” contact. For instance I don’t really want to get phone calls, ever, unless it’s an emergency. Send me a text. I never want to write a letter or try to read someone’s handwriting – email is better. Those are my personal preferences. I’m not trying to convince you to feel the same way, just to remember that this is pretty subjective and for many people digital contact is personal contact.

      • Mike says:

        2. fair enough it is pretty subjective. 1. don’t care about privacy, It’s usage rights and monetary value. Say I take a picture that a news outlet could use. Should I post this on facebook as some people have done. No. If they did not own the rights, yes, because then I could further use their site to market myself.

        • It sounds like you’re saying you’d actually lose the rights to your own work. I’m not aware of any social media site that has that bad of a policy. They might show the pictures you post in a promotion, and that is indeed a tradeoff, but you can still promote your work on the site and go on to sell it or do whatever you want.

          If you know of an exception, please let me know.

          If I was a photographer and wanted to post on a social media site here is what I would do. I would put a watermark on my images before posting them. The attribution is then built in and no one can get the unmarked original without coming to you.

          Or, do what I do with my writing – simply share a link to new work when it comes up. If you don’t put the work on the social media site, they can never use it at all. I know several visual artists and lots of bloggers who share work this way. You get to use the power of the network for promotion without giving the network any control over your work at all.

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