The social nature of privacy

When we think about privacy, we usually think about it from an individual perspective: our own personal privacy. But did you know that the actions of others affect your privacy, and your actions affect the privacy of others?

There are two main reasons for this. The first is that other people sometimes share private information about you without your permission, and you may be doing the same thing to your own loved ones, your own colleagues and neighbors, perhaps without even realizing that that’s what you’re doing.

Consider one simple example: many people give the Facebook smartphone app access to their phones’ contacts. This has the effect of sharing that contact information with Facebook, Inc., as well as other third parties to whom that company sells this information, such as advertisers, as well as law enforcement agencies. This information may also be accessed by rogue employees, or computer criminals who may steal such information in mass data breaches.

Think about it. Someone who does this is turning over to innumerable third parties private personal information – names, private email addresses and phone numbers, home addresses, and other private personal information, of hundreds of family members, friends, business associates, and other contacts, without asking any of these people if that’s okay.

Likewise, some people are quick to put up networked surveillance cameras, which send continuous feeds of footage to companies who profit by its sale, without a single thought about the effect this has on the privacy of their neighbors (not to mention themselves).

These are just two examples; in fact it is exceedingly common that people share with companies the private information of others without considering how these people may feel about it. In the vast majority of cases these people have no malicious intention; rather, they just don’t realize the harm they are doing to other people. You yourself may be sharing deeply personal information about other people, without even realizing it. Therefore, the solution starts with awareness.

The other principal way that others’ actions affect your privacy and vice versa, is by social pressure to use particular communication tools.

Consider a friend or colleague announcing “we’ll use Zoom for this event or project”. Or “Google Docs”, or “Facebook”, or whatever. What this person is doing is exerting enormous social pressure on you to use these tools. Perhaps he doesn’t believe that these systems cause unacceptable damage to his own personal privacy. What may not have occurred to him, though, is that he is trying to make this decision for other people who may feel differently.

In each case, there is almost always a more privacy respecting way to accomplish the same thing: Jitsi Meet instead of Zoom, Etherpad or CryptPad instead of Google Docs, and so on. But you may be steered into using a tool that compromises everyone’s privacy, because of social pressure from someone who isn’t familiar with the alternatives and doesn’t consider the effect that his or her actions are having upon your privacy.

Recognizing the effects that our actions have on the privacy of others, it’s time to do the right thing, the neighborly thing, the friendly thing, the considerate thing, and take care to safeguard the privacy of our fellows as well as our own.

We should not share private information about our family members, friends, employees, employers, coworkers, customers, suppliers, donors, neighbors, compatriots, and fellow human beings, without permission.

When we suggest the use of a communication tool, we should think not only about how we individually feel about the privacy implications of using one tool versus another, but also how the other party or parties with whom we would be using that tool feel about it. When someone suggests an alternative, we should be open to the idea rather than simply shutting that person out of a group or shutting them out of a social or business interaction if they don’t want to use one particular tool.

Call it Karma, call it the Golden Rule, call it reciprocity, call it anything you like: we wouldn’t want others to treat us this way, so we should not treat others this way.

Noticing all the ways that your actions affect the privacy of others may take some time, but the first steps are the mere realization that such social effects exist, and a commitment to being considerate of the privacy interests of others.

When others are considerate of your privacy, and you are considerate of theirs, everyone is better off.