I listened to the most recent Media Hacks episode of Mitch Joel’s excellent Six Pixels of Separation podcast, where the guys were discussing everything from the Please Rob Me website, geo-location apps like Gowalla and Four Square, and even Blippy, my favorite example of a channel for overshare that was even highlighted at this year’s TED conference.
Couple this with the recent issues about kids being “monitored” by the Lower Merion School District, which is now being investigated by the FBI, and you quickly can come to the impression that privacy is over. The school district case is a mess, but it raises lots of interesting questions about where school and governmental authority begins and ends.
I have been online for longer than I care to admit, and I know that when I put something up on this blog, or Facebook, Twitter or any other channel, it’s open for anyone and everyone to see. I will be accountable for anything I put up here forever, thanks to Google and the miraculous Internet Wayback Machine. I know that, and I take that into account before I post things, knowing that clients, future clients, friends and relatives and anyone else out there have access to everything. But where does the concept of privacy start and stop?
Everyone seems to have a different line they draw for themselves. Some people don’t post anything having to do with family- no pictures of them or their kids online. But then this rule is subject to violation when kids appear in someone else’s photos that get posted, when you’re in a group shot at a party, or other ways where your carefully scripted version of public and private is violated by well meaning friends. Since it’s almost difficult to go buy a traditional film camera these days, and the actual supply of film at the local camera store yesterday was sad compared to the wall of film they used to stock, the majority of photos are digital, which obviously enhances the ability to share and exchange them, which people then do, meaning any photo- innocent or compromising- can become public domain with a few keystrokes.
This is not meant to freak anyone out, but it’s simply a fact that the old rules of privacy are being eroded away, bit by bit, byte by byte, over time. If I were practicing family law, for example, I would definitely try to monitor both what my client and their soon-to-be-former spouse were doing and saying online- in a public forum, that information should be admissible as evidence, although I’ll be frank that Facebook was not created when I took evidence in law school in the early ’90’s. On the other hand, the fact that there is this openness and discoverability might just work to keep people together, because they can’t hide that information from each other, either. Transparency keeps everyone a bit more honest and accountable, but when does this constant stage pressure become too much?
We leave a digital paper trail behind us that should not be alarming so much as causing us to think a little bit, at least, about what we’re doing, what choices we’re making and why. We can create incredibly rich and important relationships with others online. I keep in touch with friends all over the globe now, that I otherwise would lose that sense of relationship and of being current in each other’s lives without these tools. I learn new things every day, share information, and have fostered business relationships through these tools, and the fact that people can find out almost anything they want about me before we ever meet. This “pre-vetting” is like a fast track towards trust, friendship and sometimes, business that works far faster and far more efficiently than ever before.
For all these tremendous positives, it also means that people know when I am cranky with my offspring, when I’m available, when I’m out of town, and just about everything I’m doing. My trainer knows where I’m out to dinner and potentially doing something I shouldn’t if I check in with foursquare, but my clients also know when I’m in the office for the same reason. I’ve agreed to make this information accessible, and I bear the fallout, good, bad and indifferent from this connection.
And my kids are growing up in a world where that line between private and public is fuzzier than ever. It’s taken me years to become comfortable with all of this- will this be the new normal for them? Will future politicians always have to see pictures of themselves as a child, ranging from food on the face to those first girlfriends, just by a few quick searches online? How will anyone be able to be perfect all the time? Will our standards finally change and we’ll have to allow for people to make mistakes and change their mind, rather than be somehow wedded to an opinion they had back a decade ago?
I have no idea where the concept of privacy will be in five years or ten. Where courts will decide the constitutional rights to some sort of privacy exist, at least as far as the State is involved, is going to be difficult, especially when people are so willing to share (and overshare) with no thought at all. Hopefully, we’ll decide much of our right to privacy still exists within our home, but we’ll have to see how the case in Lower Merion Township turns out, and whether inviting a governmentally owned computer into our house gives up some of these rights or not. There’s tons of litigation like this ahead, you can bet, so all you law students out there- make sure you’re paying attention during Con Law and Evidence. Your career could depend on it.