More Thoughts On Internet Privacy

There’s this scene from a movie going through my head. I don’t remember what the movie is, or who’s in it, or really anything about it except this scene. A guy goes to a city and is looking for someone in it based only on a name. He ducks into a phone booth, spends about 30 seconds looking through a phone book, tears out the page, and then he’s on his way. Just that simple.

In my last post I talked about changing expectations around privacy on the internet, especially when it comes to names. When I was a kid and the internet was this shiny new bundle of mystery and potential, I was told that you should never give out any personal information online. I remember not that long ago signing up for forums that gave these instructions while reminding you to pick screennames that were unrelated to your “real life.” The whole concept of the internet as an actual part of that “real life” is fairly new, in fact for a lot of people it still hasn’t quite taken hold.

Internet “sabbaths” are common, indicating that some feel it is separate and unnecessary, even something that distracts from their lives. Most of my relatives aren’t online at all, or use the internet only when they need it for school or work. Even among the ones who use the internet, I’ve noticed several people I know seem to have no use for social networks and find them to be more an annoyance than anything. They may have an account, but rarely if ever check it. And that’s not an age-based difference – for that last example I had in mind two people right around my age.

Then there’s me. At times I have stated (and honestly felt) that I live online and consider it a residence. The concept of “real life” has never made much sense to me, and therefore neither has the concept of an “internet/social network sabbath.” This is my real life, this is real communication, these are my real friends. While there might be days where I’m less social or very busy with other things or I just don’t happen to do a lot on certain sites, a planned ban of them just doesn’t work for me personally.

Occasionally I get in conversations with people about the ways social networks take away our privacy. They seem to know way too much, they follow us across other websites, suspiciously relevant ads make us aware our private internet browsing is being broadcast to some extent. Just last week I came across an article about smart TVs “listening in” on conversations. I can understand why these things would be scary if you’re not expecting them. And I wonder if it’s a bad thing that I do expect them. But none of these have been surprising to me.

I keep going back to that scene with the phone book. Our lives were never as private as we tend to think they were. Before the internet, people found information differently and had to work harder to get it, but it was always available. We’ve always been moving towards more information and connection, Facebook didn’t start it.

Even the idea of our machines “listening in on us” was one that came up for me quite awhile ago, before I actually had a cell phone. There was a strikingly similar article warning readers that cell phones would record their private conversations even when turned off, that if you wanted to join in this level of technology and connection you would be signing away your privacy. A few years later, I got a cell phone anyway! After all, if it’s true and everyone else has one they’re listening in on me anyway, I might as well get some benefit from it.

I never thought twice about starting up a blog. An older friend of mine in high school had one and I thought it was so cool and I wanted to be like her and have one too as soon as I had access to the internet. And I did! Freshman year of college, I didn’t even have a computer but I had access to the campus library and the first thing I did was find a blogging platform and set up my account. The second thing I did was join the fantasy art/fan network some other friends had mentioned before I left and put up some of my sketches. The third thing I did was seek out art and blogs I liked on both sites and left comments on them.

There I was, talking to strangers and making new friends! In-person I had trouble talking to people even if I knew who they were. I had to be very close to someone before I could venture to say something as simple as “I like your drawing.” On the internet, no such concern! I jumped right in and was sharing my inner thoughts and my most treasured drawings from the start. The internet, and in particular the very personal social aspects of it, have been part of my experience for my entire adult life.

Furthermore, I’ve enjoyed it enough that I’ve also jumped on new networks and tools when I learn about them. Some are better than others and I don’t always keep up with all of them, but I always want to try. So I’ve seen the internet grow into our lives in these small increments, drawing out more and more information as it did. I always felt the benefits outweighed the drawbacks, because I was always right in the middle taking advantage of them. (And as I said last time, I always felt more of my life was online anyway so it didn’t feel like an invasion so much as it did a completion.)

From my friends and family who have used the internet more peripherally, I often hear that the changes are surprising and disturbing. They didn’t grow up with them and they weren’t as directly involved in watching them develop. I’m starting to get to that point myself. I briefly had an Instagram account but didn’t use it much, I keep looking at Snapchat because I see it so often but I find it bizarre and don’t see the point so I haven’t yet signed up.

Five years from now, maybe even two, I might not even care to look. These things aren’t made for me, and if I look them up now it’s often just to see what the youngsters are up to these days because my youth ministry courses taught me that was important. And I can understand them to an extent from the outside, but they won’t be mine and I won’t understand it in the same way. Also, adults working with kids: It’s pretty hard to get around that. The social networks teens let you know about and friend you on are likely not the ones where they’re doing the bulk of their online socializing. So you can’t give them advice just based on what you know. They’ll always be two steps ahead of you. You have to teach them basic, general safety skills that will transfer to all the new things we can’t even imagine yet.

That’s a topic for another day. Probably pretty soon, but first I have a video that I hope to put out by the end of the week, and maybe the next accessibility post after that. So sometime next week: how to talk to kids about growing into a world we can’t predict! I’ll warn you ahead of time that I don’t claim to have definite answers, mostly questions and some thoughts about what I would do differently from my own parents and teachers.

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