The plummeting valuation of privacy

Each time someone announces the alarming discovery that the Web can be mined for user-generated content by which to judge the individuals who created it, I laugh a little and feel compelled to ask why that’s considered news. We form opinions of people all day long based on other types of information—the spoken word, a manner of dress or hairstyle, an office’s furnishings, a mode of transportation (and the bumper stickers and parking permits adhered thereto), books recommended, food ordered in a restaurant, voicemail greetings—without giving our reactions to those details any systematic thought. In my neighborhood, a preference for one of its two coffeehouses says something about a person.

The Web makes information easier to cull; it doesn’t necessarily improve our ability to evaluate or interpret the data once we have it.

The practice of gathering intelligence from the Web, including social networking sites of every variety, has been going on for years. It’s employed not only by recruiters and other HR professionals but by law enforcement agencies, the military, private investigators, venture capitalists, and freelancers like me who want to know more about the people they take on as clients.

Seen from a more positive perspective, what each of us proactively publishes on the Web can very transparently provide clients, potential employers, neighbors, and political constituents with a clear understanding of our professional and personal values. Some people don’t bear up well under scrutiny, and some flourish, which is a fine example of natural selection.

I’ve never been a public figure, but I’ve been videotaped, written about, cross-examined, and stared at occasionally because of a job I held for two and a half decades. I remain an introvert, and I can still be embarrassed, but I probably learned to edit myself just a bit by the age of nine, as did most of us. Would remedial lessons in socialization for Web users really make much difference in user-generated content?

November is not its usual bleak self here in Central Ohio. The sun is brilliant and the sky is periwinkle blue. Half the leaves have fallen. Those clinging nervously to tree branches flutter noticeably, like aspen leaves. In a few more weeks, the view of my neighbors’ homes across the street will be unobstructed. Daytime temperatures will drop. The canopy will no longer be needed for shade, but I’ll miss the privacy.


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