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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

June 4, 2012 at 10:42 AM

Will we ever stop worrying about privacy online? Thoughts from a Microsoft researcher

Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd (Photo: danah.org)

For years now, privacy has been one of the biggest, baddest and most enduring headaches of the digital era.

That’s no surprise at a time when so much technological progress is a race for more, faster and better ways to connect. But when we talk about our concerns for privacy, do we know what privacy actually means, and where it stands?

Senior Microsoft researcher and leading tech thinker Danah Boyd offered some interesting parameters at the DataEDGE conference in California last week. As Quentin Hardy of the New York Times summarized in a piece on BigData today:

Privacy is not a universal or timeless quality. It is redefined by who one is talking to, or by the expectations of the larger society. In some countries, a woman’s ankle is a private matter; in some times and places, sexual orientations away from the norm are deeply private, or publicly celebrated. Privacy, Ms. Boyd notes, is not the same as security or anonymity. It is an ability to have control over one’s definition within an environment that is fully understood. Something, arguably, no one has anymore. (Bold mine)

It seems reasonable to expect or even demand that the digital space follow the laws of real-life interaction. But maybe it’s gone too far the other way. A conversation in a hallway is private by default, public by effort, Boyd explained. Online, interactions are public by default and private by effort.

Isn’t that the truth? It takes work to build closed groups on Facebook or LinkedIn or Google+, and keep track of whom you’ve friended on Foursquare vs. Instagram, or Path, or anywhere else. Sometimes, too much work. So public sharing takes its power not just from its reach and potential reward, but also from its simplicity.

With privacy such a personal, situational thing, is it even possible to build a digital space where private sharing is as clear and effortless as public sharing?

Until we do, the privacy headache could stay with us a long time.

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