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Privacy Isn’t Dead – It’s Not Even Sleeping

It’s become something of a predictable phenomenon: an article, op-ed, or blog post will surface with an incendiary quote indicating that privacy is dead, or that Internet users have given up privacy with abandon. A slew of data is thrown around – often reporting on teenagers’ online habits – and a eulogy for privacy is trumpeted. Last week, the process repeated itself when a CNET article waxed and waned about why no one cares about privacy anymore.

It is true that our society’s use of technology is changing the ways we interact and has eroded some privacy barriers. However, claims that ‘no one’ cares about privacy are at best short-sighted hyperbole and at worst poorly veiled justifications for future infringements on privacy. As danah boyd [sic], a leading researcher on privacy, social networks, and youth aptly put it this weekend at SXSW: “When people say that privacy is dead, it just warrants others to disregard it.”

Nuanced View of Privacy – The CNET article, which stands as only the most recent of many privacy dirges, referred to a Pew survey that found 40 percent of people with an online profile have disabled privacy settings. But consider the flipside: 60% of adults and 66% of teens maintain privacy settings. This data is consistent with what we are hearing from the social networks themselves: over 50% of Facebook users customized their privacy settings last December using Facebook’s new privacy wizard. As Facebook’s Tim Sparapani recently stated, Facebook users sent a clear message that “privacy is important to [me], I’m going to control my data and I’ve now been given tools by Facebook to do so.”

Of course these statistics fail to reveal the many other actions that users take to protect their privacy. For example, a 2007 Pew study found that more than half of teens post false information to their online profiles, like incorrect birthdays. (Although this technically violates Facebook’s terms of service, Facebook acknowledged that posting false personal information was acceptable behavior.) Other privacy protective behaviors include the widespread use of browser plug-ins that block advertisers from obtaining user information. Continue reading.

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