Benjamin Esham

Sharing and the expectation of privacy

In the New Yorker, Sasha Weiss writes about Lindsay Mills, the girlfriend of PRISM leaker Edward Snowden. It turns out that until recently Mills had a personal website on which she talked about her life and posted photos of herself. It’s an interesting contrast: Snowden ended his career and risked his life to bring public awareness to the government’s collection of personal data, and here’s his girlfriend being something of an exhibitionist. Weiss writes:

The seeming gap between their temperaments mirrors the general disconnect between the anger over the N.S.A.’s surveillance and the atmosphere of exhibitionism that prevails on the Internet. We already exist in a society where much of what we do is recorded — it’s just that people often record themselves.

This is a pretty facile argument, and Weiss herself points out why:

There’s a difference, of course, between voluntarily posting a photo of yourself doing a complicated yoga pose on a chair and involuntarily committing your e-mails to a massive government server. But the fact that we are increasingly prepared to fling out details of our lives begs the question of what, exactly, we fear when we rage about a loss of privacy. Most of us react with horror to the idea that our online messages are in the hands of the government — in the sense of being collected in a massive stream of data and analyzed for suspicious patterns — but have no problem posting a photo of our kids, our wedding, or our lunch on Facebook or Instagram.

This is still very disingenuous. There’s a huge difference between the things we share on the internet and all of the other things in our lives: that verb share. When you “share” something on Facebook you know that other people will be able to see it. (Facebook does have a history of changing its privacy policies in ways that make it hard to know exactly what you’re sharing with whom,1 but that’s beside the point here.) When you call a friend on the phone to deliver personal news you have no expectation that the content or even the existence of your call will be known to anyone else.2

Every action we take is accompanied by a risk assessment: “What’s the worst that could happen?” This assessment usually happens without our being aware of it. When you walk out of the house in the morning you probably don’t check above you for a falling piano, because while there could be one there the possibility is too remote to worry about. Likewise, when you pick up the phone to call a friend, you don’t worry that the conversation will leave your shared confidence. As long as you trust your friend, the possibility doesn’t enter your head that someone might be listening in, or even that anyone else will know that the two of you spoke.

On Facebook, by contrast, people are more inclined to give a second thought to what they’re about to share. As a result, the things they share are more benign and have less potential for embarrassment.3 Of course we’re fine posting a photo of our lunch on Facebook; what’s the worst that could happen? I’m sure some people share very private information on Facebook, too, but they probably do it in private messages, which Facebook has an ethical obligation to safeguard (I can’t speak to their legal obligations). My point is that people will choose to share a certain piece of information via a certain channel after making a judgment about the risks associated with that information escaping that channel. The things we share over the phone and e-mail are much more private, which is why it’s so upsetting when one of those media starts to feel unsafe.4

  1. This chart from the New York Times is from May 2010, but it still gives you a good appreciation for the complexity of Facebook’s privacy options. (This article from Lifehacker seems to do a good job of explaining the various settings and their implications.) ↩︎

  2. Kieran Healy has written a nice tongue-in-cheek demonstration that there’s actually a lot you can infer from the “just metadata” that the NSA has been collecting. ↩︎

  3. The idea that “the only things on Facebook are the things you put there yourself” is why people were so angry about Beacon: suddenly “sharing” was something that could happen implicitly, without your even being aware of it. ↩︎

  4. E-mail and the telephone are not actually safe from a computer-security point of view, but they are widely perceived as being safe. This is a problem, but it doesn’t change my conclusion: tapping someone’s phone is so much more offensive because there is so much more privacy — whether real or imagined — to be lost. ↩︎