Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Why Privacy Is Not Dead

The way privacy is encoded into software doesn’t match the way we handle it in real life.

Each time Facebook’s privacy settings change or a technology makes personal information available to new audiences, people scream foul. Each time, their cries seem to fall on deaf ears.

The reason for this disconnect is that in a computational world, privacy is often implemented through access control. Yet privacy is not simply about controlling access. It’s about understanding a social context, having a sense of how our information is passed around by others, and sharing accordingly. As social media mature, we must rethink how we encode privacy into our systems.

This story is part of our September/October 2010 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

Privacy is not in opposition to speaking in public. We speak privately in public all the time. Sitting in a restaurant, we have intimate conversations knowing that the waitress may overhear. We count on what Erving Goffman called “civil inattention”: people will politely ignore us, and even if they listen they won’t join in, because doing so violates social norms. Of course, if a close friend sits at the neighboring table, everything changes. Whether an environment is public or not is beside the point. It’s the situation that matters.

Whenever we speak in face-to-face settings, we modify our communication on the basis of cues like who’s present and how far our voices carry. We negotiate privacy explicitly–“Please don’t tell anyone”–or through tacit understanding. Sometimes, this fails. A friend might gossip behind our back or fail to understand what we thought was implied. Such incidents make us question our interpretation of the situation or the trustworthiness of the friend.

All this also applies online, but with additional complications. Digital walls do almost have ears; they listen, record, and share our messages. Before we can communicate appropriately in a social environment like Facebook or Twitter, we must develop a sense for how and what people share.

When the privacy options available to us change, we are more likely to question the system than to alter our own behavior. But such changes strain our relationships and undermine our ability to navigate broad social norms. People who can be whoever they want, wherever they want, are a privileged minority.

As social media become more embedded in everyday society, the mismatch between the rule-based privacy that software offers and the subtler, intuitive ways that humans understand the concept will increasingly cause cultural collisions and social slips. But people will not abandon social media, nor will privacy disappear. They will simply work harder to carve out a space for privacy as they understand it and to maintain control, whether by using pseudonyms or speaking in code.

Instead of forcing users to do that, why not make our social software support the way we naturally handle privacy? There is much to be said for allowing the sunlight of diversity to shine. But too much sunlight scorches the earth. Let’s create a forest, not a desert.

Danah Boyd is a social-media researcher at Microsoft Research New England, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and a member of the 2010 TR35.

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.

Subscribe today
Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Print Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

  • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.