Monday, 1 February 2010

Online Privacy

Not so long ago, the worst invasion you could expect of your privacy was a mildly embarrassing photo appearing in the Shetland Times on your birthday, supplemented with a cheeky poem that rhymed “thirty” with “shirty”, “forty” with “dorty” or “nifty” with “fifty”.

The mischievous yet well meaning friends and relatives who submit such salutations make sure nothing too embarrassing or compromising is published; a picture of the birthday boy or girl wearing an amusing hat, or a gap toothed snap of them as a child is the order of the day. And how we laugh as we gently poke fun at the photo-ee when we see them on the street, “Yun wis some pictir o dee in da paper on Friday!”

If someone wants to have a bit of a photo related fun at your expense now-a-days, it’s more likely they’ll upload a particularly unpropitious image of you to Facebook, accompanied by a choice caption, and invite other Facebook users to comment on the unflattering vignette.

And today’s media is no longer tomorrow’s chip papers. The photos are out there, visible to all and sundry, for however long the person who uploaded them sees fit (I recently had to bribe a friend to remove a surreptitiously taken photo of me engaged in some boorish belly scratching from their Facebook page).

The chances of such jokesters having less than complimentary photos of you are very high indeed. Most people have camera equipped phones in their pockets so you’re not safe anywhere; on the street, at a party, trying your hand at Karaoke in the Marlex, you’re fair game for the public paparazzi. Worse still, the image can be on the internet within seconds and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

But besides the madcap electronic japery of filling the Internet with slightly comical photos of people engaged in mildly amusing activities, the constant drip feed of people’s personal lives onto the internet is gradually eroding our shared concepts of privacy. Services such as Twitter, Facebook, personal blogs and the like enable people to routinely share detailed information about their personal lives, and the exponential escalation of social networking has distorted the boundaries of what society considers as confidential.

Whether an individual shares their information on the Internet or not, the current disregard for privacy affects us all. An important facet of privacy legislation is the “reasonable expectation” of privacy. But as ever more people share ever more detailed personal information, this reasonable expectation is eroded. A decade ago, there would have been only one physical print of that embarrassing party photo in circulation, but now there’s a “reasonable expectation” for the digital version to find its way onto the internet for all to see.

And the situation is sure to deteriorate. The Internet has tapped into a human desire to broadcast detailed, and often tedious, information about themselves; what they had for breakfast, endless holiday snaps, their opinions on the latest gossip from Celebrity Big Brother. Conversations that once took place privately between friends “in the real world” are now splashed across the internet for anyone with nothing better to do to follow.

This simultaneously satisfies the voyeuristic nature of online networking; the ability to take a peek into the not-so private lives of others without them knowing, or having to interact with them, all from the seclusion of your own abstracted computer screen.

So it would seem that there is very little you can do to retain a modicum of privacy in the modern networked world. Stay indoors and away from friends with cameras, and avoid activities that could attract untoward attention from the swelling ranks of social networkers hungry for calumny. And most of all, give karaoke at the Marlex a miss.

Article for Shetland Life magazine - February 2010

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