Get Naked But Do So in Private

There is much discussion taking place about the privacy implications of the new Social Graph API. Given the current state of the API the discussion may be premature but then again it’s never to early to protect against a future disaster. There are a number of discussion points brought about by Danah Boyd, Joshua Porter and Marshall Kirkpatrick.

What is taking place?
As I have been discussing over the past couple days, Google announced the new Social Graph API last Friday. In theory, the point of the technology is to ultimately construct our own digital identities by leveraging Google’s index of the web. It’s as simple as that. The technologies being used (XFN and FOAF) are really a moot point in this conversation. It is even more so a moot point now that Marshall Kirkpatrick has pointed out that Google will begin indexing MySpace pages as well to include in their index of the Social Graph.

Who is making the decision?
Part of the contention is that as Danah Boyd points out, this is not the masses that are choosing how their information gets organized and distributed, it is the technocrats. Danah states, “Being socially exposed is AOK when you hold a lot of privilege, when people cannot hold meaningful power over you, or when you can route around such efforts. Such is the life of most of the tech geeks living in Silicon Valley.”

The only comparison I can come up with is elected politicians making life changing decisions for a population except that the geeks have not been chosen by the people to make privacy decisions for them. Danah Boyd suggests that we’ll all end up like hermits to cope with the exposure created by these new technologies. I would argue that you can choose not to display your information on the web to protect your privacy. Then again what happens when you are eventually punished indirectly for not sharing your information with the public?

What is at stake?
As I alluded to in my last sentence, our right to privacy is at stake. When suddenly everyone begins sharing their information online (as is happening now), eventually we will be punished for not participating. Imagine students in a high school that are all active on MySpace. If a student chooses not to participate, they are going to be the outcast from the rest. Ultimately, we are currently headed down that path and now we are developing technologies that link all of our associations together.

The Social Graph API creates an image of your identity on the social web by crawling through Google’s index of billions of pages. Facebook creates an image of your identity based on the people you approve as friends and by the details that you choose to place on your profile. Currently Facebook’s version may be more accurate and may be protected from indexing by Google but ultimately Google has access to both MySpace and Orkut. If you were ever on MySpace chances are Google now has a fairly accurate representation of your identity at one point it time.

Having all of my friends connected to me currently enables me to have random chats with others over twitter. It will also one day enable me to walk into a store and pull out my phone and see what items my friends recommend from that store. Perhaps I will also be able to automatically control which friends can enter through my security system even when I’m not at home. Law enforcement will also be able to fight crime more effectively thanks to the new social graph. There are benefits but for many there could be adverse effects of these new technologies.

Can we have it all?
So we want the cool toys but we don’t want to give up our privacy. I am saddened to say that I think we gave up much of our privacy the moment we logged on. Suddenly logging onto the internet has become synonymous with being in public. We can participate in whatever we want online but don’t be surprised when your information ends up publicly available. As Joshua Porter writes, “I’m reminded again by the age-old saying: ‘the best way to prevent secrets from getting out is to not have any in the first place.’ As technology makes it easier to share information, it becomes harder and harder to keep any of that information secret.”

The bloggers will tell you to “Get naked” because transparency is ultimately in the best interest of organizations and professionals. In reality you might want to put on some socks, or maybe even gloves. While your at it, throw on some underwear because ultimately everybody can see you. Marshall Kirkpatrick sums it up perfectly, “It’s a matter of free will and sometimes personal safety. Web users should not be asked to give these things up in exchange for participation in all that the internet is making possible.”

Do you think we can have the cool new technologies while also protecting our individual privacy?

Recommended articles