“Half a tick, Mr. Holmes. Ye can’t go walkin’ into someone’s residence, pokin’ about their personal possessions, disruptin’ their privacy… That’s for Scotland Yard.” –Inspector Lestrade, “Without a Clue”
The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom is promoting “Choose Privacy Week” and as part of that they have put together the following video featuring writers Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow among others.
As a librarian, one of the things that I find frustrating about discussing the importance of privacy with young people is their belief that they will never be on the business end of an inquiry or investigation by the duly designated authorities. If you talk about privacy with young people, especially when you talk about the importance of not putting personal information on-line, you generally get a shrug and response along the lines of “don’t care who knows that”.
The truth, of course, is that when that information is taken down and used against them, they will care–very much so. Case in point: about a year or so ago, my tween-age niece wound up in the principal’s office at her middle school. Why? It seems that she and a couple of her girlfriends had been horsing around in the girl’s locker room and one of her friends had taken a couple of pictures of them in their skivvies with the friend’s cell phone. That friend had passed the “knicker pikkers” in question onto another one of her friends who had wound up showing it to some boys. The fact that the knicker pikkers were seen by members of the opposite sex meant that the school’s sexting–texting or sending others messages with a sexual content–policy had been violated which was why my niece wound up in the principal’s office with her girlfriends. She hadn’t taken or distributed the photos, but she had posed for them and was thus considered equally guilty in the eyes of the school administration.
My niece didn’t think she was doing anything wrong or anything that someone else might consider wrong. After all, cellphones are common and it’s acceptable to take pictures with them in all sorts of situations and to send those photos to your friends. She didn’t have the experience to understand how putting private information onto a public networking device like a cellphone could come back to haunt her.
In her father’s and my day, of course, such a situation wouldn’t have arisen. No one brought their camera to school unless it was a special occasion. And even if one of the girls had brought a camera into the gym locker room, the rest of us would have raised a ruckus. I could rant about the moral decline of modern youth, but the fact is that portable technology and the spread of social media are treated differently by different generations.
At the Arnorian Library Association conference I attend a couple of months ago, one of the presenters was a paralegal who worked with a large Midwestern law firm. Part of her job was to research the on-line presence of the plaintiffs in various cases. She would seek out whatever obvious web presence they had (blogs, websites, Facebook pages, etc.) and then using what she gleaned there about their screen names (Twitter user names, for example) she would then proceed to hunt for their other postings.
I was surprised to discover that any comment made to someone’s blog, for example, is actually searchable. In a way, it shouldn’t have been a surprise–after all, comments are usually viewable by the public. It stands to reason that if you can search for a blog post, you should be able to search for the comments to that post, but it was a shock, all the same. I think twice now before commenting on blog posts now and if I do comment, I make it a point to post under a pseudonym wherever possible.
Now someone out there is bound to argue that I’m simply kidding myself, trying to preserve my privacy on-line. After all, a truly motivated investigator could learn a great deal about me, my profession, my likes and dislikes just from perusing the information I’ve chosen to share with the public on this blog and my Flickr account. One fellow librarian I know of made the choice to blog under his own name on the basis that if he wrote it, he should be responsible for it. I applaud his gutsiness and yet at the same time I cherish the thin veil of privacy that blogging under a “handle” affords me.
Jessamyn West, who was also a presenter at the 2010 conference, pointed out that cellphones, among many other high tech devices, are set up to give out their geographic location and attach that location to any photo taken with it. So if you unwisely post a nekkid photo of yourself up onto a website that accepts those kind of photos, you are essentially giving out your home address to any scary stranger who wants to look you up in person.
It’s that sort of hidden technological spying that I think provides the greatest threat to our privacy in the 21st century. My take away from West’s presentation was that it’s not enough to just use the technology or the software that’s provided to us without fully understanding it. We must educate ourselves about HOW applications and technology work in order to properly evaluate how much private information we may be inadvertantly providing to the public.
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