Saturday, July 26, 2008

Some Thoughts on Privacy 2



It may be contended that while mostly every government has laws to protect an individual's privacy they also need to have information about their citizens and what they do and even what they think so that the country can run properly.  After all we have to fill in tax forms and "tell the truth" in as far as possible about our financial status.  Also a lot of us fill in surveys and indeed a lot of people are paid to do surveys to find out what people think and feel.  While privacy is a value there are also limits to it.  I remember when two former pupils contracted TB in our school a number of years ago the Community Health Doctor came in with a team of nurses and "took control" of the school to a certain extent.  Our plight even made the papers.  Again, while one paper sensationalized the whole thing, one can see that the public had a right to know as the public health is at stake.  There are always limits to every right.

Types of Privacy:

(a) Physical - We all erect screens, walls and such like between one another to protect our privacy.  Most families attempt to give each of their children when they enter their adolescent years their own room.  As the poet said about physical boundaries - I think it was Robert Frost - "Good walls make good neighbours."  Likewise there has always been the fear of intruders into one's property.  We all remember the signs from our youth: "trespassers will be prosecuted."  Unfortunately some trespassers have been shot dead as we have seen in the news over the past few years. Also, we wear towels over us when we are changing in public pools while there is no problem with the accepted public nakedness of say a Spenser Tunick Installation as we witnessed here in Cork and Dublin in June. The context indeed does condition the notion of privacy.

(b) Informational Privacy

In these days when we are simply surrounded by masses and masses of information we can become so easily swamped and confused.  Some people even pay people to filter this information for them.  The normal means of communication like the print media and the broadcast media do this for us to a large extent.  Then, those of us who are Internet savvy can access any information we want from cyberspace.  No one does the censorship for us.  It's up to ourselves to access any information we like.  However, here's where the rub is - is what we are reading the whole truth, half the truth, a fraction of the truth or even total lies?  Added to this there is the phenomenon or rather phenomena of social network sites like Bebo, Myspace and Facebook to name the more common ones.   Most adults who are on these sites are very selective as to the personal information they put up on their profile pages as they have learned certain boundaries between privacy and information they feel comfortable with having "out there" for all to access or see.  However, teenagers and youngsters are not as worldly-wise or savvy.  They often reveal things about themselves and their friends which could be used against them by others who resent either their success or who harbour petty grudges against them. 

Likewise, we have modern problems such as identity theft where ruthless people can rob personal information about people and use it to their advantage.  About a year ago my Hotmail account was literally stolen from under my eyes when I was sent a bogus but very authentic looking e-mail from the people at MSN and needless to say I rather stupidly entered my password to find that my account password was changed and I could no longer access this account.  Luckily enough I have two or three other e-mail accounts with most of my addresses.  Nevertheless it caused great inconvenience.  Indeed, my brother informs me that some employers now do an Internet search on their prospective candidates. How widespread this practice is I just do not know.  I could well imagine young graduates sweating about some more thoughtless things they might have up on their profile pages.  Obviously, all of these social network sites have options to make one's profile page private or for friend's eyes only.  However, there is much information available on all of us in any country in the world.  I can readily see how a more fearful type of person might feel the Big Brother alla George Orwell is watching us!  However, as one who has four blogs on the go plus a profile page on Facebook for a number of years I've long gotten over any paranoia in this respect.  As I have said in my previous post the demarcation lines of privacy are quite legitimately set by the person himself or herself - according to how comfortable they are with themselves and in themselves.  Some people are more open than others - some people are more private than others.  In a democratic society it's important that we defend people's rights to be and to feel different.

Anyway, my eye way captured yesterday by reading an interesting article in The Irish Times Business This Week section on the founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg.  Like Bill Gates the young  Zuckerberg is a dropout from Harvard .  Undoubtedly social networking sites are allowing us to re-define privacy in many ways today.  Here is what this young twenty four year old billionaire (at a conservative estimate he's worth 1.5 billion dollars: Source; another source gives his personal fortune at $3 billion Source 2 ) had to say at his company's annual conference recently:

"I want to be able to build a product that allows you to be able to see a person and feel their presence, to have people have more open connections by helping them to share more." (ITBTW page 7)

Mark Zuckerberg has obviously hit on the right ingredients.  Set up in 2004, when Mark was only 20, as a socialising site for students at Harvard, Facebook has grown to some 90 million members (June 2008) from from 24 million just over a year ago.  Again I'm taking these figures from the Reuters article in the ITBTW.  Look at the above quotation from Zuckerberg.  Look at the words used:  "see", "feel" a person's "presence," "more open connections" and "share more."  These are all user-friendly, soft and cosy words that invite a person into a new intimacy as it were.  As a would-be psychotherapist, psychologist and teacher I'm all for the promotion of intimacy and I commend this young man for his entrepreneurial instincts and vision.  I'd drop out of Harvard, too, if I came up with such a brilliant idea and such a marvellous way of presenting it to the whole world.

However, one sees immediately from the quoted article that information shared on Facebook will be shared with other sites.  We read, in the same article, that

Facebook Connect will transform the social network from a private site where activity occurs entirely within a "walled garden" to a web-wide phenomenon where software makers, with user's permission, can tap member's data for use on their sites.  (Ibid.,  page 7)

However, not being paranoid, and having my own clearly wide demarcation as to what I regard my privacy as being, I am not too worried.  In the above quotation, I've highlighted the important words, "with the user's permission" and this is important for me.  I am very happy with this caveat.

Part of Facebook's popularity is that it has become an easy way to find lost friends.  See this link: Source 2

However, Mark Zuckerberg does not appear to be squeaky clean, mind you.  For a young man who aims at getting the world to share more, be open, friendly and cuddly presences to one another, he has a few skeletons in the cupboard.  "Who hasn't?" I hear you ask.  "You're dead right, " I reply.  Nothing in this life is clear cut, and it certainly never is in the business world.  Mark Zuckerberg seems to wish to protect his own privacy beyond the limits that he seems to suggest appropriate for his own users of his technology. Here is the beginning of a recent article from the New York Times.  It makes interesting reading:

Social networking Web sites can seem dedicated to the idea that nobody’s personal life is worth keeping private, but when it comes to Mark Zuckerberg — the founder of Facebook, one of the largest networks — Facebook disagrees. Facebook tried last week to force the magazine 02138 to remove some unflattering documents about Mr. Zuckerberg from its Web site. But a federal judge turned down the company’s request for a court order to take down the material, according to the magazine’s lawyers.  (See this link for the rest of the article - Source 3!)

There are also suggestions, and I hasten to add suggestions, that Zuckerberg may have stolen ideas from fellow students.  What's new?  Indeed, business cut and thrust, slinging mud and dirty tricks were always par for the course in High Finance and even Low Finance. Stealing ideas was always a source of contention at universities even in my day, especially in the realms of business, sciences and technologies. We Arts graduates called it plagiarism



Above I have uploaded a public domain picture of Mark Zuckerberg, the Toddler CEO, founder of Facebook and billionaire entrepreneur at only 24.

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