Information responsibility

I’ve previously posted about people sharing personal information on Facebook without any regard for their own privacy. On Friday the BBC ran a story about how young people could be damaging their future careers with details they put on social network sites.

Some 71% of 2,000 14 to 21-year-olds said they would not want colleges or employers to do a web search on them before they had removed some material.
BBC News, November 23rd, 2007

If you ask me they deserve to have problems getting a job. There is a level of personal responsibility that everyone should be able to shoulder. There are very few jobs that don’t involve keeping information secure, and if you fail to protect your own privacy how can you reasonably expect to be trusted to do the same for others.

You could argue that your Facebook profile is secure if you’ve used the privacy controls to prevent public access to your information. But is everyone aware that by default your profile is accessible by everyone in the networks and groups you join?

Maybe the sites themselves do need to accept a certain amount of responsibility for not making these ‘features’ clear, but if you’re sharing information you wouldn’t want a potential employer to know with any third party you deserve whatever negative effect it has.

Your information is your identity – protect it! Whenever you submit information to a website think about what it is, how much you trust the website and whether it’s something you’d want the rest of the world to know.

What’s baffling for me is that people are generally very protective of their privacy when a stranger calls them on the telephone, and yet they’re quite willing to reveal all to a website run by people who they know no more about than the person on the other end of the ‘phone.

Maybe it’s the illusion that you’re sharing stuff with your friends. Maybe people don’t think about the middle-man because all they see is a request from someone they do know, rather than the website through which that request is being made.

It’s like sending someone an embarrassing story by postcard. Do you trust all of the people who’ll see that postcard on its journey from you to your friend? How would you feel if you knew that the postal service was going to make several copies of your postcard just in case the original gets damaged? Would you still send your story by postcard?

Stretching the analogy a bit further, how about several months later you’re looking for a job and you’re worried that a potential employer may know someone in the postal service who’s read your postcard. You ask the postal service to destroy all copies of said postcard. They tell you they have, but there may be some residual memories in their staff that will take a while to be purged – nothing they can do about it, that’s just the way the system works.

Ok, that pushed the analogy a bit too far, but the principles are in there. Any information you put on the internet, whether it’s in an email, on a website or via an instant messaging services is no longer under your control. Accept that fact and remember it whenever you put something out there.

The internet is a stranger on the other end of the telephone. It’s the stranger sitting at the next table in a restaurant while you’re telling your friends about your deviant exploits. It’s the guy on the bus listening to your half of the conversation you’re having on your mobile, and he’s gonna compare notes later with the girl listening to the other half.

I love a good analogy on a Sunday evening. Failing that I’ll settle for a bunch of bad analogies.

I think part of the problem is that the internet is still relatively young. Due to the pace of change I think it’s all too easy to forget that. When it comes to the telephone, postcards and other well-established forms of communication the parents among us know all about the dangers and most have passed that on to their kids. The internet is a mystery to a lot of them, and it’s the kids who are using this new-fangled technology in place of the traditional methods.

It may take a few generations for the internet-based privacy message to get through, and in the meantime it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. Can anyone come up with a way to speed up the process?