What does privacy even mean these days?

Nearly a year on from what was ultimately a triumphant debacle that engulfed parliament, the judiciary and the media, Ryan Giggs finally consented to being named as the footballer who took out an injunction over his alleged affair with the model Imogen Thomas. Whatever your thoughts about the matter, the main topic of conversation was the idea of privacy in the digital age and what constitutes as being in the public interest.

It all kicked off back in May 2011, when 75,000 Twitter users openly named Giggs as the man at the centre of the scandal. The newspapers, albeit reluctantly, refrained from naming him. The online world continued chattering away. Realising that things were becoming quite absurd, while the injunction was still in place, the Liberal Democrat MP John Herring used parliamentary privilege to name Giggs. His point was: “Yes I am naming him but given that everyone knows who it is, it’s hardly a revelatory thing, and to that end, not that controversial.”

The internet has changed things beyond recognition as the above example shows. Privacy is fast becoming antiquated, at least in the sense of what it means. With so many people living their lives through social networks like Twitter and Facebook, we are discussing, candidly, our everyday likes and dislikes and itineraries. Even if we restrict access to our pages – i.e. you require an invite to have the opportunity of being able to ‘access’ someone’s content – within our extended network, there is a degree of frankness that was never possible before the web established itself as a social norm.

Sharing information online, whether it is a generic tweet about what we’re doing – “I’m enjoying a veggie burger” – to indicating that we liked an article on whether an investment in Bordeaux wine is sensible is, even if it appears insignificant, short snippets of data that can, once assembled, disclose a lot about us as individuals. You either think this is a good thing – sharing/connecting is good – or you worry about the implications of being so candid – identity theft for example. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, is an advocate of a “de-privatisation” of life, whereas Max Mosley, the ex-motor racing boss, backs greater regulation of content.

There’s now a privacy committee currently debating this – i.e. how freedom of expression and privacy can exist. However, in the meantime, Twitter, so central to sparking off this national and global conversation, is back in the news, this time as a villain. It has admitted this month that it has been lifting the contents of peoples’ entire address books from their smartphones (principally iPhones) and storing the information on its servers without the knowledge or ‘consent’ of its users.

This happens when people first download a Twitter app and click “Find Friends”. It does as it says: identifies who in your address book is on Twitter and then allows you the ability to connect; which is great. However, what many people hadn’t realised is that in linking this way – as opposed to searching for a pal and clicking follow – you are “allowing” Twitter in. This is worrying. If Twitter can do this, who’s to say a cyber criminal won’t jump on this bandwagon? Twitter responded by saying that it will change the language it will use, giving the example of potentially changing the misleading ‘scan contacts’ to ‘import contacts’.

This is clearly an unparalleled time with so many developments in how data is disseminated, kept and shared, voluntarily and involuntarily occurring on a seemingly regular basis. We are only now catching up to the repercussions of this new era and what that means practically, socially, intellectually and ethically. In some ways we want both – to be social and to be private. This, in some ways, suggests that much hasn’t changed, as after all, outside of the web, we physically control how much information we share with one another depending on who it is we’re engaging with. There are a great number of questions that need answering. Let’s talk. Tell us what privacy means to you?


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