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The History of Privacy in the Digital Space: Trends, Uses, Case Studies

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In early times, a person’s identity was fully transparent because people were viewed as public assets of the prevailing rulers. Everyone followed a dress code and people were identified by class, village or family. For lack of better words, you could say everyone was “Public.”

In the mid 1900’s, WWII “democratized” things, such as a new openness in dress, which allowed members of the middle class to pass themselves off as anyone. They moved into big homes and grew an increased appetite for privacy because these things became marks of success.

During the paranoia of the Cold War, when the government had aggressive wiretapping programs, our notion of privacy toughened into a near-sacred status.

Now, in current times, our attachment to a definition of privacy that was born back then seems inconsistent with the realities of today’s internet world. The privacy processes across the digital landscape are confusing and ambiguous; people still cherish their privacy yet put information on the web that almost anyone can access.

Over the past few years, we’ve gotten better at hiding things we don’t want others to see, but there are many examples of instances in which people have experienced varying degrees of privacy breaching without meaning to release personal information. Let’s look back over the past few years at two of the most commonly used sites, Google and Facebook:

2008: Google “Flu Trends”

In 2008, Google announced a new web tool that made it possible to detect flu outbreaks before they might otherwise be reported. The tool, Google Flu Trends, relied on individual search terms, such as “flu symptoms,” provided by Internet users. Google said that it would only reveal aggregate data, but there were no clear legal or technological privacy safeguards to prevent the disclosure of individual search histories concerning the flu or related medical concerns.

2009: Facebook eliminates Regional Networks

Facebook made changes in a privacy setting for users once limited to regional networks, despite facing opposition from Facebook users. The company eliminated regional networks, which had effectively limited access to information to only users within the network. Facebook informed users that unless they individually changed privacy settings of their once regional network accounts, their information would be broadly available.

2010: Boring vs. Google, Inc.

The Borings sued Google for invasion of privacy and trespass after Google’s Street View car drove down their private road and captured the Boring’s house and pool on its camera, which was then displayed in Google’s Street View feature. In dismissing the Borings’ intrusion upon seclusion and publicity given to private life claims, the court found that no reasonable person would find a car driving down a driveway and taking a picture “highly offensive,” pointing out that salespersons or delivery persons would make the same trip, and the picture did not actually display the Borings.

2011: Facebook Security Breach

Today, May 11th, Facebook users are being encouraged to change their passwords as the site deals with a reported privacy breach. US Internet Security Firm Symantec says the users of around 100,000 Facebook applications could be affected by the breach, which could allow third parties to access their accounts, post photos and comments on their profiles and mine personal information. “Fortunately, these third-parties may not have realized their ability to access this information,” the firm said. However, the users that signed up for these applications, such as games, dating services and photo editors, most likely did not intend for their information to reach 3rd parties.

These days, people are able to connect with each other and with information much more efficiently than ever before.  But cracks in the foundation of trust have been widening as more people have bad experiences with their internet privacy.

When it comes down to it, there has to be balance, and we have to be prepared to accept responsibility for our actions. If we put an incriminating photo up on Facebook or Twitter, we should expect friends, family, and even employers to see it. But, if we are simply searching for the nearest dentist on Google, do we give marketers the right to target us directly with teeth whitening ads?

Sources:

http://www.circleid.com/posts/842310_new_jersey_court_internet_privacy/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_privacy

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/30/AR2009033002848.html?hpid

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