Blog post

Forget Privacy, It Is Just An illusion

By Andrea Di Maio | September 28, 2009 | 10 Comments

Over the last week I’ve had a number of conversations with clients, colleagues and friends about how to deal with online social media.

Some people are firm believers in the power of social networking and use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others very heavily, blurring personal and professional profiles and details quite freely. Others are scared to death and do not want to use these or – if they do – they are extremely careful, keep separate profiles, mostly watch and do not participate. Others are somewhere in between.

I probably belong to the first group. It is not that I do not value my privacy, on the contrary. But I do see the tangible value of networking, when data points for my research often emerge at the intersection between personal and professional contacts, where the latter become stronger and more solid by sharing a few personal details, especially with people who are very remote and with whom I have very infrequent contacts.

I am careful about the information I post, but – watching my kids use Facebook, MSN and the likes – I have come to realize that, does not matter how careful we are, we are going to lose control of our privacy.

For instance, I and my wife don’t like to have our pictures posted. Still, relatives, friends or even old classmates post pictures of ours and tag them with our names. My house appears on Google Maps or Streetview, any of us could be “flickr-ed” or “YouTubed” unknowingly, either because somebody shoots you a picture or because you happen to be in the background of their shot. Your very network of connections tells a lot about you, who you are, who you have been, what are your tastes, and so forth.

Surveillance or traffic  cameras watch you all the time, and you know that data is used only in case of a crime or a major accident, so your privacy is likely to be respected. But what about all webcams, phone cameras, GPS-enabled camcorders, YouTube-ready devices in the hand of consumers who can use whatever they shoot the way they like? How much will information that we do not post nor do we control reveal about us, and how soon?

The emergence of location-based services like Google Latitude is pushing the boundaries even further. Just in 2000 Yahoo introduced a service called Find-A-Friend (Gartner clients can read our take on this old research note), which encountered all sorts of privacy objections. Today we have relatives and friends connected on Latitude and some of my friends publish their running paths using tracker apps on their smartphones. Of course we can always make ourselves invisible, but can we really? What would my wife say if her iPhone would tell her than I have hidden my location? What would we think if our daughter hid hers?

All this makes me think about the sentence that my colleague Daryl Plummer uses as his email signature:

Integrity is what you have when no-one is watching

The problem for us, all of us, is that somebody will be watching all the time. We’d better behave.

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  • Gagan Saxena says:

    Preserving privacy is a losing battle in this digital, social, interconnected world of the Internets and the Mashup’s. I will take as much privacy as I can get, but the focus needs to shift to securing financial and contractual transactions. A new approach needs to be taken where it should be assumed that there is no private info anymore and another token mechanism should be created for me to ‘sign’.

    I am always surprised that I can conduct almost all financial business with my addresss, phone and the last 4 digits of my social security number. That is the real problem worth solving.

  • Edwin says:

    July 09 saw personal details about the life of the next Mi6 head Sir John Sawers on Facebook. The astounding, yet not surprising, fact was that his wife had been innocently uploading family details and even their place of residence.

    With the phenomenal growth rate of tech prying further into our lives, control of our own privacy is fast slipping into the hands of others.


  • Andrés Nin says:

    I like the e-mail signature of your colleague, but I would extend it a little further: “Identity is what you have when no-one is watching”. As you described above, how people manage professional and personal profiles is a question of taste. So in the end, your real identity is only known to yourself.

  • Juergen Geck says:

    Funny that Andrés Nin’s post above just hit my awareness when I started typing. The thing with privacy as with identity is that today it resides in corporate servers. Either in servers operated for employees (enterprise groupware) or for customers (Amazon) or for customers of customers (Google).

    I think it is about time to enable people to store their personal data transparently and in a structured way. Including networing information. And including the ability to share such data themselves, directly, independently of social network operators.

  • In case anyone is interested, my 2002 book “World Without Secrets” (Wiley& Sons, NYC) explored the issues raised by Andrea in depth.

    The basic premises of that book:
    1) Everything that humans and the machines around them do is recorded, or soon will be.
    2) Anything that’s recorded is available to anyone who wants it badly enough.

    A third premise is that the circumstances above produce a world that is awash in information, and a paradoxical effect is that many people know far less than they did before. In the book, I described it as Hunter’s Second Law: “when everything is known, no one knows everything.” The social and political consequences are significant.

  • “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it!” Haven’t we heard that one before? This was Sun Microsystems’ CEO Scott McNealy back in 1999. Ten years later, the company’s chief governance officer Michelle Dennedy has just been awarded the “2009 Goodwin Procter-IAPP Privacy Vanguard Award”. So maybe the story isn’t as black and white as it may seem at first glance…

    Sure, there is an innate tension between privacy on the one hand and sociability on the other hand, but that tension is as old as human interaction. And yes, things are changing dramatically as social networks take center stage, but that doesn’t mean all is lost necessarily. Advanced identity software that allows users to create and manage partial (named of pseudonymous) identities and related privacy policies in a very user-friendly way will be part of the answers (I’ve just started reading danah boyd’s thesis on this subject, which so far is very interesting!). And don’t forget that this is all relatively new stuff still. People are still coming to grips with it, and many social norms still need to be moulded to the new context. Your friends and relatives may be tagging your name to their pictures now, but will it still be acceptable for them to do so without your consent in, say, ten years?

    Retaining one’s privacy, identity and autonomy in a world of ever increasing interaction is a veritable challenge, but it can be done, especially once society recognizes and starts to provide the necessary conditions. There’ll be a lot of growing pains in the meantime, though. And of course, things will always be far from perfect, but hey, that’s life!

  • I agree with your concerns about every increasing amounts of information about ourselves being posted online, by our selves, our friends and family and people/organizations we don’t even know.

    But the thing is, people _want_ to share their information online with others, what they want is for bad things to not happen after they share the information. I elaborate on this on my blog:

  • PB says:

    This is shockingly amateur analysis coming a Gartner blog. Thanks for the reminder that I should be going to other shops for real privacy expertise.

  • @PB – Thanks for your straightforward comment. Gartner blogs represent individual analysts’ opinions and not established Gartner positions: Richard Hunter’s book mentioned in a previous comment clearly is a far more authoritative source (and reflective of some of the points I made here), and there is plenty of research that we publish in the security and regulatory compliance domain. You may have also seen the debate I had with an analyst from a competitor firm on his blog, where I provided few more examples of what is stated here.

  • sammy says:

    I fear privacy. I think it’s natural (law) that whatever we are most attached to inevitably becomes our greatest fear. And I’m 30 and still living at home. Go figure.