Privacy Is a Continuum

This blog post is as public as it gets. I’m promoting it through social networks, and my name is prominently associated with it. On the other end of the spectrum, if I dive into the depths of the ocean by myself and give the finger to an octopus then I expect this to be a private act.

Some people fail to realize that privacy is not black and white. When Facebook says that it respects your privacy, it doesn’t mean that it guarantees that future employers will never see your drunken self-pictures. The fact that you can’t find your own tweets from two years ago doesn’t mean that nobody else can. This is something all readers of this blog surely know.

Of course, there are other situations we don’t think about much. For example, we may believe that during a remote vacation we are in a more private setting than in our hometown. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right? That hasn’t been the case for a while. A couple of days ago I saw a tweet from someone who found himself on Google Street View, having coffee with his daughter during a Paris vacation. What we do on the web is no different. We can sign up for a site with a random username and believe we’re untraceable. In reality, there are many signals that give our identity away. Our writing style is one of them. Our posting patterns may make it possible to identify our timezone, and perhaps our rough location. Of course, the site knows our IP address. The ISP knows who we are, unless we’re using someone else’s network. Do we access the site via mobile? Game over.

A colorful anecdote from my youth in Argentina. I was in a cemetery once, attending a family member’s burial. It had been a long morning, and at some point I had a desperate need to pee. The cemetery was huge, and there were no other parties in sight that morning. I walked a few hundred yards to the nearest toilets only to find the door locked. I did what probably many teenagers have done: I urinated next to a random grave. I’m paying it forward by the way: when I’m dead, feel free to pee on my grave if you must; I won’t mind, it’s the circle of life. Anyway, the point of the story is that I wouldn’t do it today. I’m sure that cemeteries are surveyed by security cameras, and there’s a non-negligible chance that I might be booked for public urination.

Being an asshole in public is even riskier. A few days ago I was at a coffee shop in San Francisco that has the following policy: between 11:30 and 2:30 pm some tables are laptop-free and have a 30-minute limit. There are signs on those tables that make it clear. While I was eating a delicious sandwich, two guys sat next to me and moved their table’s sign to the next table. They proceeded to open their laptops and start talking business. They threw a tantrum when the manager politely asked them to respect the policy. Here they are, caught in the act.

I believe that for the time being we have a reasonable expectation of privacy for the unwired activities we do in our own homes, away from open windows. Outside of that, we are somewhere in the privacy continuum.

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