Living Out Loud -- Should We All Be More "Open?": To Share or Not to Share (Part 2 of 7)

The ubiquity of digital gadgets and sensors, the pervasiveness of networks and the benefits of sharing very personal information through social media have led some to argue that privacy as a social norm is changing and becoming an outmoded concept. In a seven-part series Don Tapscott questions this view arguing that we each need a personal privacy strategy. This post is Part Two of that series. For previous articles go here.

In testimony before a Congressional Committee, Justin Brookman from the Center for Democracy & Technology, outlined the dilemma that citizens confront when they want to participate fully in society yet not live under constant surveillance. "There is an incredible amount that we as a society have to gain from innovative new technologies, but there is also an incredible amount that we have to lose. Without a framework in place to assure everyday consumers of the ability to limit the collection and retention of the minutiae of their lives by unknown third parties, any sense of a realm of personal privacy may completely evaporate." He cites many examples, such as the record kept of stories read on a newspaper's website, compared to the anonymity of buying and reading a paper from a newsstand. Or going out for a drive, talking to friends, writing letters, watching TV -- "all of these rights are eroding as these activities move into the networked world and surveillance technologies become more sophisticated." Brookman likens the decision to opt out of being party to the data collection as analogous to opting out of electricity thirty years ago. "To disconnect from the services that collect such personal, sensitive data would be to disconnect from society."

This discussion has been ongoing for many years. Stewart Brand wrote famously in 1984:

"Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine -- too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, 'intellectual property,' the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better." (Stewart Brand, 1984)

Flash forward to today, how unimaginable that hundreds of millions of people are "living out loud" willfully providing unthinkably rich personal data troves that enable a widening circle of organizations to cash in on its use -- not just marketers but also search engines, software application developers, affiliate sites, government intelligence personnel and, increasingly, other members of society and even criminals.

The tensions between information freedom and personal control are exploding today and not simply because of the benefits of sharing information using new media. Rather there are massive commercial, government interests along with malevolent individuals that have a lot to benefit from each of us revealing highly granular personal information, much of it in the public domain by default, real time as we travel through life. The clear and present danger is the irreversible erosion of that most enabling of liberties: anonymity.

The champions of personal openness argue that it's futile to try and restrict what information is collected. Rather they say we need better norms and understandings in society about how that information is used. To be sure such understandings are urgently needed.

Jeff Jarvis suggests an intellectual exercise to try and probe the limits of personal openness, posing the provocative question: "Why can't we be completely open about our health?" He says there are three reasons: Insurance, Employment, and Stigma. Arguing that we need a world where none of these apply. "Why should anyone be ashamed of being sick?" he says.

Why indeed? In some future society, there may be no shame in having an illness. But the reality is that we are not in that perfect world. If you are fully open about your health you may, in fact, be stigmatized. You may also be denied insurance or a job.

The fundamental problem with the case of radical personal openness is that we are a long way from a world where being open will not hurt us. A world, say, where employers don't discriminate because an applicant has had a mental illness, held a certain political point of view, or was photographed as a teenager having a beer on Facebook.

The now-notorious app Girls Around Me showed the unintended and unwelcome consequences of sharing information online. The iPhone app combined the information people provided on Facebook with the location information on the Foursquare site. In both cases, users would have deemed their personal information to be public. By combining the information, Girls Around Me created a map showing the location and photographs of nearby women. So if you were a guy on the town looking for female company, the app would tell you who was in the neighborhood.

On its website, the company bragged that the app was a "revolutionary new city scanner app than turns your town into a dating paradise! Use it to see where hot girls and guys are hanging out in your area, view their photos and make contact!" Users could "Browse photos of lovely local ladies and tap their thumbnail to find out more about them." The app was designed to satisfy those "In the mood for love, or just after a one-night stand. Girls Around Me puts you in control! Reveal the hottest nightspots, who's in them, and how to reach them..."

Many people in the blogosphere said the app went far beyond being helpful and entered the realm of creepy and even dangerous. I agree. Rather than being courted, I'm sure many of the women felt akin to being stalked. Again, the women whose faces appeared on the screen did not ask to have themselves presented this way. They had not given Girls Around Me permission to use their personal information this way. But Girls Around Me didn't need their permission, since the profiled women had put the info online and said it was public.

True, the problem was corrected. Foursquare has since said its information was no longer available to the Girls Around Me application, and Apple has removed the app from its App Store. But each of us should act ourselves how many other countless bad actors will emerge like this and use our data in ways that are injurious.

Of course we should demand that companies practice "privacy by design" -- designing privacy into their business DNA and that governments implement and enforce appropriate privacy regulation to protect our personal information from being misused. As the Girls Around Me case shows success can be made.

But given that there are few social and legal controls over what happens to our personal information, a life plan of "being open" is probably a big mistake. Personal information, be it biographical, biological, genealogical, historical, transactional, locational, relational, computational, vocational or reputational, is the stuff that makes up our modern identity and is the foundation of our personal security. It must be managed responsibly -- not just by others but by each of us.

Each of us needs a personal privacy strategy governing what information we release and to whom. Rather than default to openness we should default to privacy, and then choose to share information where the benefits outweigh the dangers.

Next up: "Privacy, The Self and Human Relationships"

Don Tapscott is the author of 14 books about technology in business and society, most recently with Anthony D. Williams "Macrowikinomics." He discusses these ideas on twitter @dtapscott.