The New York Times email update had the right headline “Upending Anonymity, These Days the Web Unmasks Everyone” but made a common mistake in the blurb: “Pervasive social media services, cheap cellphone cameras, free photo and video Web hosts have made privacy all but a thing of the past.”
It’s going to be important in our policy conversations in coming months and years to get a handle on the difference between privacy and anonymity (and others such as confidentiality) and how we think about rights to, and expectations of, each.
There’s a long continuum of social information generation/acquisition/transmission along which these various phenomena can be located:
- artifactual “evidence” can suggest that someone did something (an outburst on a bus, a car broken into, a work of art created)
- meta-evidence provides identity trace information about the person who did something (a fingerprint, a CCTV picture, DNA, an IP address, brush strokes)
- trace evidence can be tied to an identity (fingerprints on file, for example)
- data links can suggest other information about a person so identified
Technology is making each of these easier, faster, cheaper and more plentiful. From the point of view of the question, whodunnit?, we seem to be getting collectively more intelligent: we can zero in on the authorship of action more than ever before. But that really hasn’t much to do with “privacy,” per se.
As Dave Morgan suggests in OnlineSpin (his hook was Facebook’s facial recognition technology that allows faces in new photos to be automatically tagged based on previously tagged photos a user has posted) the capacity to connect the dots is a bit like recognizing a famous person on the street, and this, he notes, has nothing to do with privacy.
What it does point to is that an informational characteristic of public space is shifting. One piece of this is the loss of ephemerality, a sharp increase in the half-life of tangible traces. Another is, for want of a better term on this very hot morning in Palo Alto, “linkability”; once one piece of information is linked to another, it can easily be linked again. And this compounds the loss of ephemerality that arises from physical recording alone.
From the point of view of the question asked above, the change can mean “no place to hide,” but from the point of view of the answer, it might mean that the path to publicity is well-paved and short.
Some celebrate on both counts as a sort of modernist “the truth will out” or post-modernist Warholesque triumph. But as pleased as we might be at the capacity of the net to ferret out the real story (the recent unmasking of “Gay Girl in Damascus” yet another example), the same structure can have the opposite effect. The web also has immense capacity for the proliferation and petrification of falsehood (see, for example, Fine and Ellis 2010 or Sunstein 2009).
Thus, it may well be that the jury is still out on the net effect on the information order.
See also :“No Such Thing as Evanescent Data”