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Understanding Online Privacy


In the Information Age it is almost impossible to transact business or "do life" in private. Information simply can't be, "a little private," just like you can't be "a little pregnant" or "a little dead."

Before we get too crazy, it is important to define privacy: "The state or condition of being free from being observed or disturbed by other people." This is very specific. Can an electronic funds transfer be private? Can it be anonymous? No and no. A cash transaction can be private. You simply meet in a dark alley do your business. Is there an electronic equivalent? No.

So, what is online privacy? Or, to broaden the question appropriately, "What is Information Age privacy?"

We, as a society, are going to have to struggle to answer this question to the satisfaction of the majority. It is going to be hard.

  • Is there a reasonable expectation of privacy in the 21st Century? No.
  • Is there any hope of online privacy? No.
  • Is there anyway to guarantee that anything we do is private? No.

Can information published be private? In 20th century terms the question is an oxymoron. In the 21st century there are people who are standing on soap boxes screaming at the top of their lungs that a Facebook post should come with a certain amount of privacy protection. If you publish information to a universe of 2 billion broadband connected computers and 4 billion cell phones why would you expect it to be private?

Many will push back right now and say, "Hey stupid, we're talking about people and organizations taking our information without our knowledge and using it for their own purposes without our permission!" So, you want a "little privacy" because you certainly were happy to post your info for a large group to see. Would you want to control the group you published your information to? Maybe treat a Facebook post like a confidential report that is marked "confidential" and only distributed to a certain, select, group of executives?

We must, as a society, become masters of the media we publish. Our credit card transactions may be private, but they are not anonymous. Someone at the financial institution knows exactly who we are, who we are dealing with and the amount of the transaction. If they make that information public, is it a crime? They give it to the credit reporting companies. Should that be allowed?

If you use your EZ-Pass to pay for a toll at point A and you arrive at the EZ-Pass toll booth 70 miles away 40 minutes later, it is easy to calculate that you were speeding. Is that a violation of your privacy? If you Tweet that your doctor says you "may need bypass surgery if your stent doesn't hold your artery open," and your medical insurance company scrapes the Twitter feed and denies you coverage is that a violation of your privacy? If someone took a digitized copy of the white pages and published your address and phone number online is that a violation of your privacy? If, if, if …

Obviously, this game of "what if" can go on forever. And, I'm sure it will. We need to study and learn the discipline of living in a digital world. It is different and new and exciting and dangerous and decidedly un-private. How? First, pretend you're a movie star and that everything you do is being watched (It is, every key click, every remote control click, every online behavior, all of it). Assume that the paparazzi are waiting for you everywhere you go. (Security cameras are). Assume that you should never write anything you don't want incorporated into the permanent body of knowledge of mankind and, never, ever txt, tweet or email anything that is not for public consumption. As for voicemail, assume it is a digital audio recording on a remote server and you have given permission to the recipient to distribute this file like it was a hit song on Bittorrent.

Can we live with this level of personal privacy vigilance? Should we have to? Isn't it the role of government and law enforcement to protect us so we don't have to do all of this ourselves? I don't think so. That's sort of like relying on the government to warn you about obvious stuff like, making sure toddlers don't play with small, bite-sized, plastic toys, or content warnings on videos, or the little notice on cigarette packages that tells you it may not be a good idea to suck smoke into your lungs, etc.

We now have an Office of Privacy Policy, a couple of bills about online privacy and a bunch of examples of serious security breeches in the news. But this issue is not going away. It's going to be news for years. When will we get it right? When we find the Zen balances between personal and public, anonymous and private, open and closed. Of course there's never a Zen Master around when you really need one.

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About the Author: Shelly Palmer is the host of "Digital Life with Shelly Palmer," a weekly half-hour television show about living and working in a digital world which can be seen on WNBC-TV's NY Nonstop Tuesdays at 10p Eastern and online, and the host of "MediaBytes," a daily news show that features insightful commentary and a unique insiders take on the biggest stories in technology, media, and entertainment. He is Managing Director of Advanced Media Ventures Group, LLC an industry-leading advisory and business development firm and the President of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, NY (the organization that bestows the coveted Emmy® Awards). Mr. Palmer is the author of Television Disrupted: The Transition from Network to Networked TV (2008, York House Press) and the upcoming, Get Digital: Reinventing Yourself and Your Career for the 21st Century Economy (2009, Lake House Press). You can join the MediaBytes mailing list here. Shelly can be reached at For information visit

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