A Foil-Hatted Follow Up

I learned a good lesson yesterday: when writing about something as contentious and hot-button as online privacy, don’t just dash something off in under 30 minutes. Though I stand by my original thesis, it was clear that I didn’t explain said thesis very well.

It hit me like a lightening bolt last night – when and how this attitude about privacy was born. I can even pinpoint the exact date: June 5, 2002. (Stick with me for a minute. I promise I’ll connect it in the end.)

June 5, 2002 was the day I got mugged. It was in the middle of the day, on a weekday afternoon, in a grocery store parking lot teeming with people. Really, the least likely timing one could imagine. There was no gun, thank goodness, but the bastard did put his hands on me and throw me to the ground. (The funny part: as he was running off with my purse, my wallet fell out. Ha ha!) I skinned up a leg pretty badly and lost my passport and cell phone, but it could have gone much much worse. As any crime victim will tell you, though, it’s the emotional damage that gets you. It took me years to feel relatively safe in my own skin again and I can assure you that I have a decidedly different view of parking lots now.

There’s another common thread any crime victim may share with you: at a certain point, you must accept the randomness of the universe. Otherwise, you’ll continue to believe that you could have done something different to prevent the crime. And that’s simply not the case. In fact, any psychologist will tell you that it is downright detrimental to believe you could have controlled the outcome of the situation. That’s the insidious nature of crime: it snatches control of your being right out of your hands.

To keep yourself from going batty, you do as much as you can. You lock your doors at night, keep your children close, and avoid dark alleys. But if you spend too much time exploring all the different ways in which something could go wrong, you end up agoraphobic and surrounded by cats.

In case it’s not already painfully obvious, this is how my attitude about online privacy developed. You do all you can – and let me be clear that I’m not suggesting you don’t do all you can – and then you let go. And if you can’t let go, it very easily becomes a fetish.

If you agree to be an active member of society, you recognize that there is a risk. And you recognize that the benefit of living your life is worth the risks. If you’re unfortunate enough to be mugged, you don’t blame the grocery store for the fact that you had to buy toilet paper.

If you agree to be an active member of online society, you recognize that there are risks. And that the current – and especially eventual – benefit of sharing at least some of your life online is worth the risk. Just as you avoid dark alleys, you shouldn’t share anything online that you’re not ready for the world to see. You trust they won’t, and you do what you can to protect yourself, but you should be prepared for the eventuality. And should that unfortunate eventuality occur, you don’t blame the site for the fact that you wanted to share pictures of your kids.

I’m not declaring privacy dead. I don’t think anyone concerned about it is a “Luddite.” But I do think that the conversation we’re currently having is out of date and ignoring some painful truths.

The Tyranny of the Foil Hatted

Anybody got a pen? Someone should mark this in the calendar as the day I agreed with Michael Arrington. Though he approaches it with his usual deft touch (‘Mice nuts,’ anyone?), he hits the nail squarely on the head regarding online privacy.

A quick re-cap of how we got here: you may remember Facebook changing its privacy settings a few weeks back. Tech geeks were horrified and began deleting their accounts, while your non-techie friends likely posted something in all caps in their status, then moved on. Over the past weekend, Arrington had a quickie Q&A with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the ensuing headline – Privacy is Dead! – raised everyone’s hackles all over again. This morning, Arrington called us all Luddites for caring. And a good morning to *you* too!

I met with a company a few days ago that deals in data and one of the execs said something I had to scribble down immediately. “Why should your privacy fetish impinge on my need for data usefulness? There is a very real danger here of the tyranny of the minority.” Privacy fetish – I love it.

Arrington raises a very salient point in his post: if you’re a participant in the 21st-century modern world, your privacy has already been compromised past the point of hope. Unless you’re living off the grid in a mud hut – in which case you’re not reading this – ‘they’ know everything about you. So any personal campaigns you’re waging to protect your Facebook quiz results are, well, something of a fetish. Further, as the data exec points out, some very real benefits lie in the exploitation of said data. All the screaming we’re doing about making Google work better and ending the glut of information that’s thrown at us? Not going to be solved without using our personal data.

Now let me beat you to the punch: won’t someone please think of the children? Yes, there is a separate raft of concerns when it comes to kids online. But if you’re under any illusions that ‘they’ know less about your kids simply because they’re small – well you’re wrong about that too.

I realize that it’s out of character for me to say, essentially, “They’ve already won. Just give in.” But I’m afraid that’s the case here. While I’m not advocating you start taking naked pictures of yourself and using them as profile pics, I am saying that if you want to participate in technology as it stands today, you have to let go of a few illusions. And key among them is that you’re currently in control of your online data.

Password Schmassword

Conversations with fascinating people are, in my opinion, the best part of tech conferences. I haven’t even been at SXSWi 24 hours and have already hashed over: whether human-assisted tagging and metadata can be classified as semantic technology; the increasingly casual attitude we’ve all adopted toward our passwords; what it will take to interest the VC community in green technology (ahem); and, perhaps most importantly, how many breakfast tacos one has to ingest before complete diet integration is achieved. As a Texas native, I’m not a good judge of the last issue, as we begin eating breakfast tacos at birth. But a piece by Marshall Kirkpatrick today, along with an unpleasant experience with Spokeo two days ago, prompted me to tackle the password issue.

Frankly, I’ve become so used to giving my Gmail password to any social service that requests it, I don’t give it a second thought anymore. So when I decided to try out Spokeo in comparison to FriendFeed, I freely gave up my password thinking it would respond as expected: find some friends already using the site and prompt me to invite in others. Instead, it began trolling the Internet for all 500+ contacts I have in Gmail – including people I contacted once or twice on Craigslist – - and telling me of their detailed activity online. It felt invasive and downright creepy. Even worse, it contacted some of those people (not sure how it determines which people) and told them that someone was digging for info on them online, so they should 1) change their privacy settings on those sites and 2) sign up for Spokeo. (Not sure I grasp their messaging there. If everyone changes their privacy settings, Spokeo’s user base disappears.)

My friend Kelly, a super-smart developer in semantics, was one of those who received this email. We were discussing it last night and he made an excellent point that should be foremost these days and which I applaud Marshall for bringing up: a dangerously lax attitude towards our passwords is beginning to take hold in the industry and important initiatives like Data Portability and OpenID should be receiving much more support and attention. With lifestreaming taking hold – I’ll write soon about a hot company launching here, Socialthing – users and innovators alike need to keep the password issue top-of-mind. In the manic development atmosphere that has arisen around communities and social networks, the issues of privacy and security have taken a bit of a backseat. As a new era of all-updates, all-the-time is ushered in, we need to bring it back to the fore.

**Note: I haven’t talked with Spokeo yet for their side of the story and will post their side once that conversation occurs.