On privacy, online

Jul 05, 2020

At least 10 years ago, a young boy decided to make a blog. There was no clear purpose written in his mind on why he would venture on that journey, but one aspect was adamant. He would not reveal his name on this website. Time passed, the blog was abandoned, and the young boy eventually decided to start again. Years later he ventured on this journey you read now. Many things have changed within his conviction, values, and writings, yet perhaps most relevant for today's discussion, his name is now public (and can be found on the About page, of course).

I bring this up as a few days ago I joined a short twitter thread with an old friend, discussing about what would people prefer their online sharing defaults as, public, or private. It appears my preferences have changed over time, and my understanding of the online environment we wade through each day has changed as well. So...

Is there even such a thing as privacy online?

I think most of my readers are familiar with Facebook, and the default 2 ways to share a though. It is obviously not the only way to structure an online platform, but I believe there's enough insight we can gain by analyzing these 2 options: public, or just your friends.

One of the things we might notice, however, is that the information is not actually restricted in either scenario. Pictures, for example, all have a publicly accessible URL. Furthermore even if they were restricted, users can take screenshots, or photos with a 2nd device and re-share that information. Think of all the photos of posts or tweets used to target an adversary or to shame someone. In that sense, no information is ever private in an online forum.

Privacy settings do serve one functional purpose when it comes to access to data, filtering your profile from untrained bystanders. They limit what the average populous will see by default, they let you shape your first impression to some extent. It is clearly possible to do a proper background check on someone and bypass and go around those privacy settings, most people will not have the interest or resources to do so. Just like it takes a few good hours to get decent enough at lock picking to get past a good number of doors, and most people will have no interest and reason to do that.

Alright, that's cute, what other people might do is interesting, but that's not really what I hear most of the times when it comes to the privacy debate. The argument is usually against the platform, because that they use your data for financial gain. People train machine learning algorithms using your data, unbeknownst to you there are facial recognition algorithms that can recognize you (with a much lower accuracy than you think). Sure, you might get some of the benefits, Google may be able to sort your photos and make them searchable or whatever, but no, Big Brother is out there, Orwell predicted this!

I won't claim this dystopia is unreal, instead all I can say is that I've admitted defeat and I've learned to dodge this issue. I've learned that my previous attempts to get people to use <platform I thought was private> was mostly pointless, stressful, and with little to no reward. Moreover, I've learned to understand that I have no insight to what any platform is doing with my data. None, zlitch, nada. Someone's going to make money off me and that's probably ok.

Privacy online is truly a myth these days, knowing what platforms do with your data is nigh impossible, and people will re-share things if they thing it's worth it.

Maybe the system is wrong!

Whatever dark deep agenda may or may not take place, it all feels overwhelming. And that's because we probably don't understand it.

I don't even think we can understand the online spaces we join. You'll see people arguing about fake news, moderation, suspended accounts, censorship... Everyone has a stake in this fight, everyone wants to feel right and everyone wants eyeballs on their own content which could be monetized through ads. Moreover, most parties fighting about this seem to think they know how the platforms should be ran, they know who's ban-worthy and who's not, they KNOW the system is unfair and targeting their side!

Privacy and moderation are somehow solved on platforms which have been around for less than 20 years, in an environment that has reached public exposure around 30 years ago. It's difficult to understand why that's a short time considering the speed with which we communicate, but the printing press wasn't used worldwide over night, books were used exclusively by scholars for centuries, and even when it comes to spoken debate formats in which people found it legitimate to argue have evolved and changed through most of history.

Of course online systems are broken to a certain extent, they are younger than we'd like to admit.

So, what shall I do about it?

Well, if you can't know what is private, nor can we agree upon what should be private/public/moderated/free speech... what can I do about it? Learn, and share explicitly with clear intent.

I've learned to only share things I consider public, mostly ideas and music, but I might eventually expand on that. I also try and keep pictures of friends and family to a minimum. If it's vaguely personal, or an experience I've shared with a few people, than it's most likely going to be shared off platform, or as a direct message to those people. I think Toastmaster's the only exception to that, yet that place is somewhat explicitly becoming my training wheels for being at least somewhat a public figure.

I don't feel like the settings matter, sharing is always a public act, so I might as well make it intentional, and explicit, and hopefully careful.