Why Online Privacy is Bogus
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of private is “something that is belonging to or concerning an individual person, company, or interest.” In today’s world of global connectivity and social media, the idea that anything can be considered private information seems naive. In 1991, Sandra Petronio stated that communication privacy management theory (CPM) is how people navigate privacy and boundaries, i.e. what is private and what is public information. She also included five criteria that affect our personal privacy rules:
1. People believe they own and have a right to control their private information.
2. People control their private information through the use of personal privacy rules.
3. When others are told or given access to a person’s private information, they become co-owners of that information.
4. Co-owners of private information need to negotiate mutually agreeable privacy rules about telling others.
5. When co-owners of private information don’t effectively negotiate and follow mutually held privacy rules, boundary turbulence is the likely result.”
Let’s break a few of these down a little more. “People believe they own and have a right to control their private information.” This really boils down to how we control the narrative we want to put out to the world about ourselves. A good example in Petronio’s book included how visibly disabled people would be blatantly asked about their physical disability. It could be something that’s deeply personal and/or private, yet because of its visibility, people feel they can just ask. To the person with the disability, this really undermines their control over their own privacy.
For me, the fourth criteria of “co-owners of private information need to negotiate mutually agreeable privacy rules about telling others” is very personal. It was never a secret that I was adopted as an infant — all my family and friends were aware of this. I had limited information about my birth parents due to nature of the adoption. A few years ago I did a DNA test just to find out a little more about my ethnic background. Since the results were listed as visible, my sister-in-law helped me do some detective work and actually found my birth mother. We agreed that we didn’t need to share this information outside our immediate family. This was important because my birth mother had never told her current husband or grown children about the adoption until I reached out to her privately. This was something she wanted to keep private and I understood that. Family secrets are really just privacy boundary agreement.
Finally, I think one of the biggest things we see in the news or social media would fall under the fifth tenant of “When co-owners of private information don’t effectively negotiate and follow mutually help privacy rules, boundary turbulence is the likely result.” Let’s face it: people love gossip and those “gotcha” moments with political and celebrity figures. Even the Prime Minister of Canada isn’t above the fray, when old college yearbook photos of him in brown face surfaced. Or when a jilted girlfriend decides to post the recent mug shot of her ex boyfriend’s arrest on Facebook and tags his supervisor to ensure he gets fired. Both of these examples show that privacy boundaries weren’t clearly discussed or defined between parties. One person may have wanted the information kept secret, whereas the opposite party decided to make it public regardless.
Even though social media sites allow users to control their privacy settings, the multiple scandals that have plagued Facebook show that what is considered private data can still be tracked and used. The biggest example of this is the Cambridge Analytica scandal from March 2018. This 3rd party company got access to over 87 million Facebook users’ information and used that data to influence voting. In June 2018, Facebook was back in the news with reports that they were again sharing user personal data with 3rd party app makers. And finally, in November 2018, Facebook says they their platform was hacked, and user data could have been exposed. Because of these scandals, Mark Zuckerbug has appeared before House and Senate committees, with lots of talk around increased regulations (Check out: Facebook at 15: How a College Experiment Changed the World for all the details.). I’m sure this won’t be the last time Facebook is in the news, but the sad truth is that private information rarely stays private in today’s world.
So, is private information really private and do we have control over it? Let’s face it: nothing is ever private when you put it anywhere online. Keep that in mind whenever you’re about to hit that post button.