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Are Attitudes about Privacy Changing?

Are Attitudes about Privacy Changing?

Are Attitudes about Privacy Changing?

"You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it!" -- Scott McNealy

"The best way to predict the future is to invent it." -- Alan Kay

In recent years, some important public voices have claimed that people's attitudes about privacy are changing—and in particular that the younger generations value privacy less than their elders do. The supporters of this view often point to the vast amount of personal information that some people share on social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter. In fact, in 2010, after Facebook changed its privacy settings so that its users' information (which had previously been private by default) would be made public by default, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave an interview in which he said

When I got started in my dorm room at Harvard, the question a lot of people asked was 'why would I want to put any information on the Internet at all? Why would I want to have a website?' And then in the last 5 or 6 years, blogging has taken off in a huge way and all these different services that have people sharing all this information. People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time. We [Facebook] view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are.

Perhaps in response to such comments, several studies have explored the attitudes of Internet users across the U.S. on issues related to online privacy. In February 2012, the Pew Research Center released the results of one such study, which showed that while two thirds of Internet users use social networking sites, only 20% of them report that "their main profile is set to be completely public." 58% of social networking users set their profile so that only their friends can see it, and another 19% make it visible to friends of their friends, as well. Thus, the vast majority of people who choose to use Facebook still try to limit the amount of the information that they reveal, depending on the audience. In 2014, Facebook changed its default setting so that new posts would be visible to a user's "friends" only (and users can then change that setting); however, the new default applies only to users new to the platform.

Other studies claim that, as more and more information about us is collected, sold, and used to customize the ads, searches, and content that we see, people are in fact becoming more concerned about their loss of online privacy. In response, some people increasingly take countermeasures--such as deleting posts and untagging themselves from pictures, using software that blocks tracking, periodically deactivating (as opposed to deleting) their Facebook accounts (which makes those accounts temporarily unavailable), or providing false information online. Younger people take those measures, too. 5

A 2012 "State of the Net" report by Consumer Reports magazine noted that approximately one in four U.S. users of Facebook now include false information on their profiles; two years ago, only 10% of U.S. users did so. As the data collection and "mining" becomes more intrusive, the accuracy of the data may be deteriorating in response.

Some commentators argue that people's worries about privacy may be rising not because of real dangers, but because of fear mongering by "privacy activists" and sensationalized coverage of privacy issues by the media. Whatever the reason, more of us are, apparently, developing masks for our online identities. Although it may be true that people are now "sharing more information and different kinds," many are now also trying to regain control over who has access to that information, and for what purposes.

As new laws and industry self-regulation measures are proposed, there is often an accompanying discussion of potential outcomes. When it comes to protection of online privacy, you will probably hear the claim that some measures, if implemented, would prevent innovation or destroy the Internet altogether. You will also hear the claim that without protective measures we will lose our autonomy and end up with an all-powerful non-democratic government, or a society that sees people as nothing more than consumers.

As always, you should consider the source of the claims—including the motives of those who make the claims. Consider the value of privacy, as well as other values, such as security or innovation. As technology changes, presenting new benefits and new threats, our behavioral and ethical norms may change as well. We will have to keep reevaluating the balance of benefits and harms related to the loss of online privacy.

Discussion Questions

What is the personal value of "sharing" information? What is its public value?

Have your own online sharing patterns changed over the past year? If so, how? What caused those changes?

Do young people that you know care about their privacy, both online and off? If so, do they take any steps to protect their privacy? What are some of those steps?

Are there possible harms that can arise if users of social networking sites such as Facebook start providing false information about themselves? What would those harms be?

5. See boyd, dana and Marwick, Alice. "Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens' Attitudes, Practices and Strategies. May 9, 2011.

Irina Raicu is the Internet Ethics Program manager at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Photo by Alan Cleaver under Creative Commons.

Jun 1, 2012