Sunday, 30 May 2010

The strange case of Facebook and the right to privacy

It’s fascinating to watch the turns and twists of the debate over Facebook privacy, though I have to confess that I have some trouble coming to terms with it. After all, the ‘www’ in front of the Facebook address refers to the idea of a ‘worldwide web’. I have trouble with the idea that we distribute material worldwide but still expect it to be private.

I feel the same about the frequent criticism of Britain as the nation with most video surveillance of any country in the world. I mean, I don’t deny the fact. In one sense, I suppose it’s actually a bit comforting to be top in something, having just come bottom in the Eurovision song contest. But of course the critics are reacting to the invasion of privacy that these cameras represent.

Certainly there are video cameras everywhere. I see them all the time, in public places, on the public highway, on public transport. But note that word ‘public’. It’s not insignificant. Where do we get an expectation of privacy when we’re in public?

One of the exciting aspects of starting out on a career is the way you have to come to terms with new concepts and challenge many of the ideas you had at the outset. When I first got into marketing, I took up with enthusiasm the task of planning a publicity campaign for our wonderful range of products. It was going to be so good that we’d be fighting off the people wanting to buy from us. I briefed some outstanding agencies, I worked alongside them with passion and energy, we came up with a campaign that gave us real pride. So imagine my disappointment when I put a series of designs in front of my boss and he leafed through them with apparent distaste and obviously increasing anxiety.

‘Yes,’ he said finally, but in a tone that betrayed his reticence, ‘these should be highly effective. But do we really want our competitors to know all this about us?’

It was a Damascene moment. It was the first but by no means the last time I had met a businessman who wanted to trumpet from the rooftops the outstanding qualities of his products, while imposing the strictest possible confidentiality about them. The elusive goal he was seeking was, in fact, secret publicity.

You may smile at the idea. But aren’t the concepts of ‘Facebook privacy’ or ‘the right to privacy in a public place’ at least as questionable?


Marie Beeson said...

Hello Cousin!
In this electronic age, folks do need to have some privacy. For example, for years banks and other financial institutions have used one's mother's maiden name as an identifier that you are in fact you. However, with sites like available, where folks can look up your parent's detailed information, what was the point of all that?

I was recently frustrated as a web site I have never used posted my home address and other details that I did not want readily available on the web. Some web sites have links to their privacy policy and the darned link is broken when you click on it, so it is all rather sketchy.

The problem with Facebook is that a lot of the younger generation use it, and then HR representatives, managers, etc. reseach these 20-somethings when they apply for jobs. Only later do some of them find that maybe it was not such a good idea to comment or post those photos from Spring Break in Mexico.

David Beeson said...

Thank you, cousin, for your comment.

I agree entirely with your complaint overa web site that published details about you without your permission or knowledge. That's certainly abuse and should be prevented (and indeed punished).

E-mail I feel should also be regarded as private at least to the same degree as phone calls.

My point is really to do with information about ourselves which we put on the net voluntarily. It seems to me that we would be much better off if we changed mindset and treated that action as 'publication', i.e. making information public. If we just assumed that nothing on the internet was really private, we would perhaps learn to be more careful about what we put up there.

Which would be no bad thing.

Awoogamuffin said...

As for the surveillance cameras thing, 1) what do people want to do in public streets that they don't want filmed? and 2) who thinks somebody is watching the feed all the time? Usually it's just a useful tool after the fact, as demonstrated after the London bombings.

That said, if Britain did decide to complete its trajectory into an authoritarian police state that kept tabs on everybody, it would already have a large part of the infrastructure in place...

David Beeson said...

Feels to me, though, that preventing Britain becoming an authoritarian state - and it's certainly becoming an increasingly centralised one - requires more careful thought and more sophisticated action than moaning about cameras. As you say, the recordings aren't even watched that much...