Unpacking the dominant discourse about privacy

May 14, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
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It does say in the name of this blog that I am a sociologist. I think that in some of the posts I write more like a privacy advocate, but this time I’ll try to avoid that. Every day I get a few links from Google alerts – I have an alert set up for “the future of privacy”. Just now I found myself reading some kind of business blog. It included the following paragraph:

Privacy is one of today’s “hot button” issues as technological advances have enabled increased access to, accumulation and manipulation of data on an unprecedented scale.  Further, there is a growing societal need to share almost everything; Geolocation services like Foursquare and sites like Blippy and Twitter being but a few examples.  There also seems to be a generational divide where, as a rule, those under 30 share anything about themselves without thinking twice about it.

This paragraph concisely expresses what would appear to be the dominant views on privacy today. So let’s do some sociology and unpack these views a little bit.

We can’t argue much with the first sentence. That much is undoubtedly true.

However, I cannot accept that there is a “growing social need to share almost everything”. People share information because they “need” to? No, that will not do as an explanation. I’m not going to pretend to know why people share the information they do, but it is not because they “need” to. It might be because they enjoy getting attention, because they find it helps them form and strengthen relationships with people, because of peer pressure, because they think it’s fun, or for a number of other reasons. I don’t know. But I do know that it’s not because they “need” to. If there’s a social need to use Blippy, for instance, then why isn’t the author of the blog I’m discussing using it? Why isn’t everybody using it? (Hint: because lots of people think that their credit card information is none of anyone else’s business.)

The next sentence refers to the “generational divide” between the under-30s and over-30s, whereby the under-30s indiscriminately share any and all information about themselves. This is a very popular conception, but increasingly research is showing it to be misplaced. For instance, a fascinating article in the New York Times discusses the increasing discretion among younger internet users. Meanwhile, a review of teens’ use of the internet suggests that younger people view privacy in a different way from older people, but that this does not imply a thoroughgoing laissez faire attitude to it. For instance, kids certainly want privacy from their parents. Perhaps paradoxically, it is the kids who use the internet most who are most aware of what they can do to protect their privacy. In any case, lack of knowledge should not be read as a lack of concern.

The idea that the under-30s tell all about themselves is a popular notion, but one that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. I expect more and more academic studies to show this in the near future.