The more information accumulates about us online (with or without our consent), the walls between the compartments of our lives become more porous (eventually they’ll likely disappear altogether).
Whether or not you know it, your social network is visible to others online. This is important because it means people can view you how your social network understands you.
Even if you lock down your Facebook profile, odds are you allow viewers to see your friends (which can be a great source of information about you; one can easily use the public information your friends display to gain insight about you – what organizations they’re affiliated with).
Even the organizations and people you’re NOT affiliated with can say volumes about you; I anticipate this will become a huge source of inferential data in the future as data analysis tools continue to become more sophisticated and more data accumulates online. Imagine: an aggregation tool could run an algorithm to find out who you dislike based on an analysis of common connections, interests, and groups and looking for gaps in your circle of connections.
Nothing about this is anything new to police or intelligence agencies – they’ve been gathering this data for years (building cases by interviewing individuals peripheral to a target). The difference is that now it’s a communication channel available to anyone.
This is why I believe privacy will be virtually impossible in the future. This has important ramifications for public policy; take medical records.
- One of the main reasons medical records aren’t largely digitized is privacy concerns – people worry that individuals and organizations outside of the doctor-patient relationship will be able to use that data to the disadvantage of the patient (think insurance companies, banks and prospective employers).
- Even if you are able to keep your medical records from being posted online – the records of your relatives will be posted. Conclusions about your predisposition to health issues can be gleaned from the health of your relatives (and organizations whose profitability depends on calculating risks will actively seek out this information).
- Conclusions about your health can also be drawn based on aggregated data from the region you reside in (the percentage of fast food restaurants, the rates of STD/STI infection, etc.).
Another reality (explained in greater detail in the book “Born Digital” by Urs Gasser and John Palfrey) is that children born today typically don’t have a choice about what information about them ends up online; their parents begin creating digital presences for them while they’re still in utero (by posting sonogram photos/videos, and information on how they intend to rear their children in discussions with friends). A recent study concluded that 92 percent of toddlers have an online presence.
Update: Apropos of this post – a hilarious Venn Diagram from Dave Makes: