Recontextualizing privacy

One of the chief observations made about social media is that content becomes completely decontextualized, leading to a ton of noise and ultimately watering down the efficacy and value of any given piece of information.

I wonder if the same thing is happening to privacy.

As an average consumer, it’s effectively impossible to be private online. Across all of our devices and all of our apps, it’s relatively easy for a large company like Google to piece together who you are, what you look like, where you live, and who your friends and family are. Beyond that, it knows exactly what to advertise to you. Information makes money.

Yet, when I discuss online privacy with non-tech-minded friends, they tend to conceptualize privacy from the perspective of profiles, like whether my Instagram profile is private or if I use my full name. This makes sense, because this kind of privacy is tangible: I have a nice big toggle that allows me to choose, and I can see what happens should I choose to toggle it.

This kind of privacy is important, and we ought to have control here. But it’s also such a narrow view of our privacy that we miss the larger scope of how our information is being used online.

There is a whitepaper (which I need to link to later) that describes how privacy is ultimately a tool that allows us to maintain control over five parts of our lives. One of these is reputational control – setting our profiles to private allows us better control over our reputations. But what about the other four types of control?

I would hypothesize that consumers having the simple, reputation-based idea of privacy benefits large companies who are able to continue to collect behavioral information that makes them money. As long as people keep talking about privacy in the context of what their friends can see, the less they’re venturing into wider contexts where they begin asking questions that are dangerous to the current status quo.

This makes me wonder: what does online privacy mean to people? What are the examples that come to mind? How do they protect their privacy and do they feel they do it adequately? What gaps exist in their understanding? What should the default privacy experience be, and what needs to happen to get there?