Thinking about privacy and asymmetry

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.

5 thoughts on “Thinking about privacy and asymmetry”

  1. There is no doubt Information is money today. I have always been in confusion if one should put his/her interests, job information, contact information etc on their profile. It looks attractive when someone is looking for an may help the person. But if there is no such need then?

  2. I noted yesterday that Robert Scoble was effectively declaring his avowed openness with relation to FB Places to be a competiitve advantage and, specifically, a serendipity maximiser. That’s all well and good, and in his situation he’s right, but it’s his conscious choice. Moreover he has the technological ability that would allow him to create that openness from a default security position.

    But it’s not just a matter of technological ability that protects us in this sphere. Worldiness and attitudinal adjustment are also important. That’s what makes Facebook’s approach both morally questionable and reputationally naive in my eyes. It seems to me that asymmetry is inevitable (though I’m sure you’ll show me otherwise) and thus it behoves the information banks to acknowledge that by defaulting to high privacy settings – even if that militates against their business model.

    People don’t understand the implications of their open-ness – indeed I’m not sure they even realise they’re being open. If they default setting on their email account was to let everyone in their inbox see all their emails, then I think they’d have a different attitude and demand the technological ability to amend that situation straight away. Information holders should be working to provide that level of technological ability and awareness to their users rather than justifying their self-serving behaviour with specious pontifications about the death of privacy.

  3. I have been mulling this over. I think Danna’s point is not so much about defaults so much as using defaults as your distribution mechanism. The network mechanics should “fix” flaws that work against the balance of interests of all (i.e. if we don’t know about the privacy feature, and it ‘hurts us’, the network of contacts will eventually level it out). And this goes to the core of another post I found here which outlines that the crux of the problem as this ‘ there is a whole misalignment of the value I co-create and the value facebook derives revenue from. That’s pretty deep.

Let me know what you think

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