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Privacy isn't dead - it's just evolving

Social networkingIt's a brave new world. Unfortunately - to mix the literary allusion - that brave new world is one in which Big Brother is watching. As social media and other technology makes more information more accessible, the very concept of privacy is under fire.

Privacy is a hot topic at this year's South by Southwest interactive (SXSWi) festival in Texas. Danah Boyd, a social media expert for Microsoft Research, presented a keynote speech spotlighting the fate of privacy. Boyd made it clear that she does not feel privacy is dead. Contrary to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's claim, she said, people do still care about privacy.

As one blog summed up her speech: "Boyd says that privacy is not dead, but that a big part of our notion of privacy relates to maintaining control over our content, and that when we don't have control, we feel that our privacy has been violated."

Drawing a line

So, where is the line, exactly? If the Google Street View cameras happen to catch you standing naked in your living room window and post it online for the world to see, does that violate your privacy? Some say yes.

However, others are quick to point out that Google is capturing its images from public roads, therefore whatever Google captures would also be viewable by anyone walking or driving down the street. The bottom line being, if you don't want the general public to see you in all your naked glory, perhaps you shouldn't be standing naked in the living-room window.

Fair enough. What about employee monitoring? Is it okay for an employer to play Big Brother and monitor employee actions and communications? Established legal precedent suggests that the organisation's right to monitor its own hardware and network resources trump the rights of employees. Some compliance requirements actually mandate monitoring and retention of communications for businesses obligated to follow them.

The US Supreme Court is hearing a case that challenges that legal precedent, though. If the established policies of the organisation allow for shared personal and business use of company-issued computers or other devices, the company may inadvertently be implying an expectation of privacy and surrendering its right to monitor. The decision in this case could have wide-ranging implications for compliance, and for corporate acceptable use policies.

Schools fall under an obligation to monitor activity as well. Doug Taylor, director of educational marketing for Spectorsoft, explains: "Both filtering and monitoring are required by CIPA (Childhood Internet Protection Act) in order to protect students while on campus or away from the school network and district filtering servers. Monitoring and filtering of internet activities is also a typical part of a school's written and signed Acceptable Use Policy."

Again, fair enough. However, the Lower Merion School District may have taken that responsibility a little too literally, and a lot too far, when it implemented the ability to enable the webcam on laptops issued to students without their knowledge or consent. Does the obligation of the school to monitor extend to a right for the school to watch students getting dressed in the morning?

Google Buzz and the privacy backlash

Google recently unleashed a firestorm of privacy criticism after the initial launch of its social networking tool, Google Buzz. Like many of the criticisms of Facebook, the backlash was more about the lack of control over privacy than it was about the actual privacy itself.

That is really the crux of the issue. It is not that technology has killed privacy, but that privacy must evolve and adapt to keep up with technology. There are extreme points of view that see privacy as binary - either everything is kept private, or everything is shared.

Contrary to the extreme positions of the EFF - champion of the privacy cause - on one side, and Google and Facebook executives on the other, there is actually a very large grey area in the middle.

In an age where the majority of people around the world feel that internet access is a right, the challenge is to strike a balance between providing access to all of the information in the world, without exposing all of the information in the world.

What the EFF and social networking executives need to understand is that privacy is subjective. There is no clear answer because my definition of privacy may not be the same as your definition of privacy. As Boyd stressed in her SXSWi keynote address, people just want control over when and how their information is shared.

Social networking sites are an extreme example because, by definition, they exist to share information socially. However, all businesses are entrusted with data of some kind and have an obligation to protect it. It is important that organisations understand that privacy is not dead, and it is important to keep user concerns regarding privacy in mind while adapting to evolving technology.

See also:

How to use Facebook safely

Facebook faces legal action over privacy settings

School accused of using webcam to spy on student

Google Buzz faces privacy lawsuit

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