Privacy, Online Access, and the Fragility of Life
Call it a devil’s bargain or call it the modern world, questions of privacy in relation to the Internet and social media haunt me.
LinkedIn recently emailed me a suggestion to congratulate one of my connections on her work anniversary. Not long before that, Facebook sent a notification reminding me of another friend's upcoming birthday. These sorts of notices certainly aren't uncommon today -- social media, after all, is all about building, strengthening and expanding our relationships.
However, these two reminders were different and somewhat unsettling than others. You see, both my coworker and my friend had died from aggressive forms of cancer within the past year. So, instead of announcing something to celebrate, both emails served as sad reminders of tragic events.
I don't blame social media platforms for this. Unless someone steps in and closes their accounts, Facebook and LinkedIn are simply doing what they are supposed to do. You can't expect them to scan the obituaries and update profiles accordingly.
Or can you?
We have all become players in data, big and small. Every time we click on a banner ad, update a status, geotag a photograph, or shop online, we participate in the gathering, classifying, and storing of data about ourselves. Do you have a grocery store savings card? Did you know that every time you swipe it at the register you are authorizing a record of the items you just purchased? Clearly, someone out there is wondering just what I am going to do with all those bags of candy corn.
We might be willing to share information, or it can be gathered through inference: Andrew likes Bruce Springsteen -> Bruce Springsteen is a big fan of the New Jersey Yankees -> Send Andrew baseball- themed ads.
However, data can become stale, outdated, and downright erroneous. Just because something was once true doesn't make it true forever. A teenager may like a product at 18 only to shun it at 25. Tastes mature, requirements change, and sadly, life events alter us in unexpected ways. Yet, so much gathered information seems to last forever.
Aware parents instruct their children about the perpetual aspects of the Internet. A photograph that might seem funny now, doesn't seem nearly as funny when you are applying for a job interview and it's the first thing a hiring manager sees about you. We pretend that a social media post is like a temporary tattoo that can be easily washed off, while in reality, the ink runs much deeper.
Which brings me back to my Facebook and LinkedIn dilemma. Clearly, asking us to congratulate a deceased person on a birthday or work anniversary is not what those social media sites intend. Yet, do we want them meddling with our lives beyond whatever nebulous boundaries we may have set? Do we want life events automatically triggering online status changes?
A New Currency
The Internet is as successful as it is for a variety of reasons. It's available nearly everywhere. It connects people to vast amounts of information from a nearly endless number of sources. It's accessed from an ever increasing number of devices. It comes in every conceivable language.
I would like to add the fact that it provides a wealth of "free stuff." Yes, you pay for online access, but once online, you are presented with an incredible number of free services. Do you want a mortgage calculator? There are plenty to choose from. Do you want to send emails and instant messages? There are lots of ways to do that, too. I am an active user of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and I've never paid a dime for any of them.
Or have I?
While I may not have shelled out hard currency, I have paid for nearly every Internet service I've used. However, instead of dollars and cents, I've paid with personal privacy. I've paid with email addresses, phone numbers, a birthdate, photographs, status updates, likes, and "which animal are you" quizzes. Clearly, all these have value to companies willing to write software, host websites, and provide an open front door.
Of course, no one twisted my arm and told me that I had to create a Facebook account. I did so willingly and continue to participate of my own volition. That's not to say that I haven't started thinking differently about what I choose to share with the world.
It's a little disconcerting that Facebook can automatically identify the people in the pictures I post. Of course, it's only because I've tagged those people in the past and Facebook's facial recognition software simply matches the people in my new photograph to the data it previously gathered. The same goes for the ads presented to me. Facebook knows what movies I might be interested in seeing before I've even heard of them. It knows where I want to go on vacation and when I am ready to leave.
This has forced me to start thinking about my social media habits. I am not so quick to identify every new face I post to my timeline. I think twice about sharing my email address with every new service I might be interested in using. I also limit my use of those point-of-sale savings cards.
Let's get back to where I started this missive: Do I want to receive messages from social media sites about friends and colleagues who have passed on? Are these reminders of mortality and the fragility of life annoying, or are they welcome reminders that some aspects of personal privacy are still respected by the social media giants? And if not respected, then off limits.
I am not at a place in my life where I am willing to jettison the power and benefits of the Internet in return for a little more control over my life. That doesn't mean that I won't continue to question my interactions and alter what I am willing to share and how I am willing to share it. It's a balance that we must all strike. Call it a devil's bargain or call it the modern world, these questions of privacy continue to haunt me.
Andrew Prokop writes about all things unified communications on his popular blog, SIP Adventures.
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