If you’ve ever been to Calcutta, you will know something about crowds.
[My thanks to Accidents Will Happen for the wonderful Calcutta scene above.]
As many of you know, I was born there. A teeming city with many millions of people. I spent much of my childhood and youth in a small flat with an open-door guest policy; it was rare that we had less than 10 people staying in what was essentially a 2-bed 1500 square foot perch. I was educated at St Xavier’s Collegiate School (and College) from 1966 to 1979; I think we had around 1200 students in the school, and over twice that number at the college.
So I was used to crowds, and to living in vertical stacks. My concepts of privacy were therefore somewhat different from those that would have been obtained by people brought up in many parts of the West.
One of those concepts relates to the role of symmetric and asymmetric information in the context of privacy. If everyone knows something about you, and you know that everyone knows that something, then you would have no real privacy concerns. Gossip, along with its more malevolent avatar, blackmail, both rely on asymmetric information, where only a few people know something and others don’t. It is only then that information has power; it is only then that the power can be used; sadly, much of the time, such use tends to be at best immoral and often downright illegal.
It’s therefore important to know who has access to information about you, and who could have access. It’s important to understand what is in the public domain; it is even more important to understand what isn’t in the public domain, but remains accessible to people with peculiar powers and abilities, ranging from individuals to governments.
Which is why I’ve tended to follow debates about privacy with considerable interest, even if my experiences were fundamentally different.
In this context, I’ve really enjoyed reading the work of danah boyd over the years. I was particularly taken with something she wrote a few weeks ago in First Monday. Along with co-author Eszter Hargittai, danah’s written an excellent paper called Facebook Privacy Settings: Who Cares?
If you have any interest in privacy, particularly when it comes to privacy attitudes amongst the millenials, I would urge you to read the paper. Rich in data, it will help you understand more about generational differences related to privacy, and, in all probability, will dispel some of the myths you’ve been fed over the years.
I think the point that danah and Eszter make about the role of default settings and their effect on newbies is particularly important, and should not be underestimated. I quote:
The relationship between adjusting privacy settings and frequency of use as well as skill suggests that technological familiarity matters when it comes to how people approach the privacy settings of their Facebook accounts. This is particularly significant when we consider the role of default settings. If those who are the least familiar with a service are the least likely to adjust how their account is set up regarding privacy matters then they are the most likely to be exposed if the default settings are open or if the defaults change in ways that expose more of their content. This suggests that the vulnerability of the least skilled population is magnified by how companies choose to set or adjust default privacy settings.
This issue is not just about facebook, it is something that every firm will have to learn about and respond to. More to follow, in a week or two. In the meantime, let me know what you think.