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Why people really do care about privacy

When Facebook changed its privacy settings, Zuckerberg took pictures off his Facebook pages. Google's Schimdt is reportedly trying to take down his ex-lover's blog. No one cares about privacy? Really?

Chris Matyszczyk
8 min read

I am writing this while wearing a rather cool sweatshirt that I put on for the occasion. I bought it at a 70 percent reduction. It is sort of a beige color, and it has a weird diagonal zip. It was designed by an Austrian.

What else would you like to know? I'll tell you anything. I want to be a truly modern human. A model human, really--one who just doesn't care what people know about me. One who will divulge anything to anyone. (Which, incidentally, many Europeans believe is exactly what Americans do on first meeting.)

You see, I have been empowered by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and now by a very thoughtful piece by CNET's Declan McCullagh, to cast off my inhibitions and lay it all out there. Yes, I once had a crush on Sandra Bullock. I'm over it now. She prefers men with tattoos. It annoyed me.

It indeed seems that no one cares about privacy anymore. I was the last. I held out. But, honestly, what good will it do me, now that I know so that many people are using Google Buzz and loving it? Truly, I should get over myself and post a video of me doing it.

What McCullagh said so perfectly is that "Internet users have grown accustomed to informational exhibitionism." The things you see on the Web make your nostril hair recede back into your head. The blogs about peeing cats and feudal worship make me realize that this is the world of egotism gone digitally rampant.

I must confess, though, as I prepare to remove my nonmatching socks and my sweatshirt (it's getting warm out here), that I have a couple of concerns as I enter this new age.

Hmm, the private zeitgeist or the public one? CC Loic Le Meur/Flickr

It seems that every time I hear people telling me that privacy is just so Jim Reeves, it's precisely those who stand to make quite a lot of money out of saying so. Whenever I am about to do something questionable--you know, like taking my lobster for a walk--I hear Eric Schmidt's words to CNBC like a tremulous tinnitus in my ears: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

Then I turn to my lobster and whisper, "Not today, Shirley."

Schmidt, on the other hand, got rather upset with CNET's Elinor Mills when she did a quick Google search of his name. And according to some people at Gawker, he also tried to take down a blog, written by an alleged former paramour.

Perhaps I am just misunderstanding. Then again, the same questioning people at Gawker seemed to cause Facebook's Zuckerberg, at the time that his company changed its privacy settings, to have his photos made more, well, private after the site published some of them from his suddenly very public Facebook page.

I know I am slow about all of this. It seems that perhaps this is because I am over 30 (though I am not sure if my girlfriend is--does that count?). Apparently, younger generations are more au fait with being technologically blase.

I tested this out, in true Google fashion. I researched it. I asked a good 18-year-old friend of mine whether he had, you know, been going out with that girl I saw him with last week. He told me a little, in a very guarded way. But when I asked a more probing follow-up, he looked at me as if I had just smeared salsa on his iPhone and was trying to scrape it off with a tortilla chip. We're friends--socially networked. We even text each other. But he wasn't having it.

My favorite painting. I just wanted you to know that. Chris Matyszczyk

I know that technology changes the way we behave. (You should see how my new juicer suddenly makes me prefer juice over water.) I know that generations all have their own quirks, habits, and norms. But here's where my real, entirely backward suspicions lie. With Google's Buzz and Facebook's Beacon, for example, it was hard to resist the notion that the creators were trying to bypass any potential privacy objections by putting the onus on real people to notice and be bothered to do something about it.

It was your job to care, not theirs. And that doesn't feel like the best customer service, even for products that cost you nothing at all.

Facebook and Google take great pride (at least, publicly) from caring about their users. But when it comes to respecting their users' privacy, they do seem woefully slow. If there would be no privacy to respect, of course, no one would complain at all, but complain they do. More than that, I believe that some people are becoming increasingly careful about what they post and how they post it. Social networking still gives you a choice. You should know what that choice really is.

It may well be that there are 9 million Buzz posts already out there in the universe, but how many of them are deeply personal? And is it possible that, with all the uproar, those people posting are finally, fully aware that their musings will be public? Would it really have been so difficult for Google and Facebook (with both Beacon and the latest privacy settings) to make clear what it is they were proposing and explain fully the ramifications of their ideas? Might it have been an idea to ask how real people felt about it before launch? It would have taken simple words, simple layouts--you know, like Twitter.

The fact that they didn't suggests not that no one cares about privacy, but that privacy gets in the way of these companies' goals. With Buzz and Beacon, the companies revealed that their enthusiasm for forced mass involvement--leading to commercial advantages--far outweighed any thoughts of privacy.

I don't want a CEO telling me what the social norms are, as if I am too dumb to work them out for myself--especially when his primary motivation is financial, not social. If Facebook could make more money from increasing your privacy (and it declared just two years ago that privacy was "the vector around which Facebook operates"), you can bet that an increased need for privacy would suddenly be declared the social norm.

Yes, social networking has helped people get used to certain stuff being made more immediately public than it used to be. For the majority of people, that includes only certain stuff--the same stuff they would have been happy communicating to their friends before Facebook and Google came along: their pictures (but only some), their news (but only some of it), their holidays (but not all details), their friendships (but not necessarily what gets discussed). Is it really true that everyone has become a social exhibitionist? If it were true, if it were generational, why is it that this supposed Generation X-hibitionist seems so darned conservative?

I'll tell you everything, Mark. If you tell me everything first. CC Deney Terrio/Flickr

People care about privacy because having a private life makes them feel like people, rather than billboards. It's an essence of humanity, as we currently know it, that we only allow certain people to see more of who we really are, what we really do, what we really think, and how we really feel. There are many reasons for that. One of them is that we don't really trust other people all that much.

If all of our information were made public, wouldn't we all become just a little too predictable? This--remarkably coincidental--is exactly what algorithm worshipers would love: "We know who you are. We know what you think. We know what you like. So you'll definitely buy this product, won't you?"

There are worried people out there in the foggy world who have been at the forefront of creating the most important technologies--Jaron Lanier, one of the creators of virtual reality, for example. In his brilliant book "You Are Not a Gadget," Lanier showed how very concerned he is that imperfect technologies are increasingly trying to dictate human behavior.

If privacy really has been tossed away like a dollar to a beggar, shouldn't I first have the right to know everything about those who want my information, rather than the other way around? Shouldn't Eric Schmidt, Mark Zuckerberg, and others reveal their innermost thoughts and actions on a daily basis, thereby proving their supposedly incontrovertible theses? Instead, they don't seem so keen.

Their businesses aren't based on mere technological excellence. They are based on trust. Strangely, Google's Schmidt seems to believe that we should trust his company because, well, he says so. At a recent media conference in Abu Dhabi, Fortune reported, someone said this to applause: "All this information that you have about us...Does that scare everyone in this room?"

Schmidt's response: "Would you prefer someone else?...Is there a government that you would prefer to be in charge of this?"

Strangely, perhaps there might be. If Google revealed itself completely, real people might trust it just a little more. The company would be setting an example, like a true evangelist, that others could follow.

McCullagh quoted federal judge Richard Posner as saying, "As a social good, I think privacy is greatly overrated because privacy basically means concealment. People conceal things in order to fool other people about them."

Am I really trying to fool you by not telling you the color of both of my socks? Or might I not want you to take advantage of my bad taste? Might I not want to burden you with the information, just in case you want to rush out and buy me two socks, both of the same color? Might I not want you to know what I wear around the house, so that it doesn't encourage you to come here and knock on my door and gawk at me? When it comes to privacy, who's fooling whom? And why are social-network leaders so keen to believe it is dead?

In one sense, though, Posner is right: privacy is about concealment. It's one of the only powers we feel we hold in an often-difficult world. I don't want you to know what is (or isn't) in my bedroom. Jennifer Aniston doesn't want you to know about her relationship with Gerard Butler (until she does). And Facebook and Google don't want you to be reminded that their real intention is to make capital from your quite natural, modern, cool decision to suddenly stop caring about your privacy. You see, they'd prefer to keep that to themselves.

Do you mind if I put my socks back on now? I'm suddenly feeling chilly.