Decreased Privacy Doesn't Mean Increased Accuracy

You cannot hide anymore.


Your fetishes will be exposed, says Brian Stelter in the New York Times this week. Your hoaxes will be outed. Your secrets will be laid bare. The Interweb's combination of ruthless inquisitiveness and infinite access to information will reveal you if you are a fraud, exonerate you if you are a hero, let your cream of wheat rise to the top and leave your chaff by the wayside.

Lesbian bloggers will be revealed to be middle-aged men. Kissing couples will be tracked down and identified. Pictures of weiners will be traced to their owners.

Right now, these things are happening with enough infrequency that we find them shocking. "What? He sexted? I can't believe it!" But what happens when the relentless march of transparency reveals that the majority of us are engaging in shocking behavior?

What happens, for example, when we learn that 60% of people smoke pot on a casual basis? Do we legalize or prosecute? What happens when 80% of politicians are embroiled in sex scandals? Do we wipe the slate clean and reboot government with all new players -- all, of course, equally human and equally likely to fall prey to the same temptations of iniquity?



I used to be a fanatic follower of the Tour de France, until one too many doping scandals eradicated the last of my respect for -- and the last of my trust in -- the riders. This is the cycle of scandal: from trust, to betrayal, to shock, to forgiveness, to betrayal again, to feelings of stupidity, to cynicism, to apathy.

And with enough reference cases, we extrapolate our mistrust to the entire population. I now have no faith in the blood purity of Tour cyclists, whether or not they have ever been under suspicion. I am not surprised at all when people in power are outed for infidelity; in fact, I can't believe any of us are, or that it's even a story. ("South Park"'s Trey Parker and Matt Stone can't believe it either, judging by the politically incorrect "Sexual Healing" episode.)

Add to this the fact that the availability of additional information often has little bearing on how factually informed we are. As of last August, nearly 20% of Americans believed President Obama was a Muslim. The Great Wall of China cannot be seen from space with the naked eye. And lemmings are not suicidal (but Disney filmmakers are evidently lemming-cidal).

My hope and belief is always this: that greater transparency creates the conditions for transformation, that if we can see each other clearly, we can better understand each other and, in so doing, create a better world. Longfellow said, "If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm any hostility."

But the very grave danger we face is that increased transparency just leads to increased noise and therefore increased confusion - and that an infinitude of conflicting information simply drives us to not trust any information. That the more the foundation of our trust is excavated, the less informed we feel, and the less informed we are.

There are those among us who will respond to the demise of privacy by doing the right thing. There are those who will use the transparency offered by the Internet to bring injustices to light and wrongs to right. And there are those who will not. Because, at the end of it all, the Internet makes us neither smart nor moral. That, my friends, is up to us.

4 comments about "Decreased Privacy Doesn't Mean Increased Accuracy ".
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  1. Rick Monihan from None, June 25, 2011 at 12:36 a.m.

    I remember reading about the ancient social rites of Japan, in which it was often easy to see and hear what your neighbors were doing, given the close living quarters and paper thin walls. Part of the social structure was the ability or willingness of individuals to ignore what their neighbors were doing, basically "it's none of my business" being the order of the day. How historically accurate this is may be open to question - but how valuable it is as a learning experience is not.

    I believe the collection of data will provide only marginal value over the information our industry is capable of collecting today on a more aggregated basis. I'm not sure that collecting detailed data will provide improved values, except in some very specialized cases.

    Even if we willingly share information about ourselves, on places like Facebook, it doesn't mean we're interested in allowing publishers or advertisers to use that information to "reach" us. It means we are interested in sharing our experiences - not having our experiences exploited commercially. Some would argue that by putting information about ourselves on Facebook puts it in the "public domain". I'd say it's only public if we posted it for all to see, beyond the 100+ friends we sought to share it with.

    Publishers and advertisers alike have to guard against overstepping the bounds of acceptable snooping. It may not be illegal to follow me around a mall and leave fliers on my car window that relate to the stores I visited - but it sure does make me feel uncomfortable that I'm being watched that closely.

    I agree that righting wrongs and bringing injustices to light is a benefit - but at what cost? We have laws limiting the types of evidence that can be admitted in court. If the evidence is collected in a manner not adhering to these laws, even if they impact a case directly, the evidence is not admissable. Sometimes how you gain the clarity and visibility you seek can work against you.

  2. Kaila Colbin from Boma Global, June 25, 2011 at 6:25 a.m.

    Thanks so much for that thoughtful comment, Richard? Really appreciate it. It's an interesting point you raise that as we become less private we may consciously make the decision to ignore what's going on around us -- privacy by etiquette rather than infrastructure.

    To your point about something only being public if we posted it beyond the 100+ friends, I think if you share something with more than 100 people it's pretty well public -- even without Facebook. Benjamin Franklin said, "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead."

    Thanks for reading and responding.

  3. Kaila Colbin from Boma Global, June 25, 2011 at 6:26 a.m.

    Sorry -- meant that to be an exclamation mark rather than a question mark: "Thanks so much for that thoughtful comment, Richard!" :)

  4. Rick Monihan from None, July 1, 2011 at 11:49 a.m.

    I agree with Franklin's intent, but not the expansion beyond it.
    I wasn't suggesting that sharing with 100+ people is "private". But rather that it's information is for semi-public (rather than public) consumption.

    A picture of me atop Mt. Everest is something I'd be proud to have, and share with my friends. Whether I'd want it in Time Magazine is another question altogether.

    On several occasions, I have been going about my business in NYC, only to be approached by someone to sign a consent form. The reason? TV shows were taping and caught me doing "something" (eating lunch, purchasing a product, etc.). In each case, I signed the consent form. I knew what I was doing was going to go "PUBLIC" in a big way, and once even had friends over to see the segment in question.

    But it's very different on the web. I tell my kids exactly what you said - that sharing on Facebook is as close to public as you get so be careful what you put there. But that's as a warning because while there should be tighter controls on this stuff...there simply aren't. Living defensively isn't really all that appealing, but it's a fact of life today.

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