I’ve developed an unfortunate habit of laughing when folks tell me their privacy is important to them. What’s so funny? Well, the funny thing is I’ll often see the “private matter” hashed out in frightening detail on Facebook or Twitter. I’ve never been hip enough for MySpace, so any secrets told there are safe from me. Facebook, however, is another matter. In July 2010, Facebook reached its 500 millionth user, which is the equivalent of the population of the North American continent. But my point is that something has been taken. (Or did we give it away?) In my opinion, when we think about privacy, there are three sub-issues operating in a manner that’s dangerous, covert and simultaneous: Legal privacy, propriety and public safety.
The easiest of the privacy concerns to deal with is propriety. A lot of what I read on Facebook simply doesn’t conform to traditional notions of socially acceptable discourse. I realize I might sound like a boring stiff, but Facebook isn’t the right forum to discuss an unpaid debt, a disappointing romance or a stupid boss. All of the social networking sites have generated an excessive connectivity that doesn’t have intimacy or personal connections. So we become disconnected from the immediate consequences of awkward social behavior or inappropriate comments. The “sexting” (sexual texts) phenomenon is a growing trend among folks over 55 according to a November 2009 AARP article.
One of the most significant consequences is that we are willingly giving up our constitutionally generated right to privacy. Because we have become too lazy, busy or easily amused, we don’t take the time to ensure that those matters that should be private are private. In 2003, in the Lawrence v. Texas decision, the US Supreme Court affirmed a broad concept of privacy as “a realm of personal liberty which the government may not enter.” But boundary to privacy rights is the “reasonable expectation of privacy.” So if you post your intimate thoughts on Facebook or broadcast your location via a smartphone application, what consequences do you actually expect?
But it’s the public safety aspect of privacy that’s most troubling. In fact, the convoluted web of relationships between privacy and the give and take of privacy is so profound that it demands its own column. Join me in October for Privacy Part II: Given and Taken.