thoughts on privacy from 2011


[This was a research paper based on a trend.  I chose online privacy or the lack of privacy.   Figures don’t copy and paste well from Word to WordPress so have a click and you will find the images called for.]

Myriad issues surround online privacy.  This paper examines privacy in history; takes a brief glance at some issues and related problems; attempts at solutions; and offers its own.

There is no such thing as online privacy.  Auel (1980) writes about an ancient people who live in a group setting without the boundaries of walls; she describes group norms of avoidance or ignoring measures as a way the group affords privacy to members who live within inches of one another and punishment that occurs for violating the invisible boundaries.

Online communities exist in a more primitive state.  Facebook forcing everyone’s settings to public resembles the little boy on the playground who pulled down the pants of other children.  (Duncan, 2010)  Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, only partially share any blame however.  Our lack of privacy awareness or literacy results in self-exposure.  (Regan, 2002)  In a manner akin to going into Mrs. Kravitz’ house, a web user virtually enters Mrs. Kravitz’  living room and pulls down his own pants.  (Langenderfer and Miyazaki, 2009)  It is as though the web user is sleepwalking, then suddenly awakes to find his drawers around his feet in his nosy neighbor’s home.  (Regan, 2002)  On the television show, Bewitched, Mrs. Kravitz would race to her phone, place a call and share what she witnessed.  Now, as then, once exposed our information is no longer under our control and that is the crux of the problem.


In 1890, Louis Brandeis wrote an article for Harvard Law Review entitled, “The Right to Privacy.”  In his article, Brandeis (1890) explains the progression law took regarding the issue of privacy.  At the time, candid photography had just become popular and hotly debated as to who had rights to the images.  The courts ruled that the individual owns all rights to his or her image unless signed away in a contract.  (Italics added for emphasis.)  Brandeis (1890) also discusses the role of reputation, slander and rightful ownership of writings.  These issues are highly cogent to a twenty first century discussion of privacy against the backdrop of the World Wide Web as publishing of content occurs online instead of in newspapers. Prophetically, Brandeis (1890) wrote

            This development of the law was inevitable.  The intense intellectual and emotional life, and the heightening of sensations which came with the advance of civilization, made it clear to men that only a part of the pain, pleasure, and profit of life lay in physical things.  Thoughts, emotions, and sensations demanded legal recognition, and the beautiful capacity for growth which characterizes the common law enabled the judges to afford the requisite protection….  Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person, and for securing to the individual what Judge Cooley calls the right “to be let alone.” (p. 195)

Information sharing

Blogs, Twitter and Facebook allow sharing of information with a community.  What happens when a community or network receives that information is not readily apparent. (Regan, 2002)    The images below are graphic visualizations of information sharing within the social media network of Twitter.  The first two images do not indicate interrelated connections between networks, only conversations surrounding topics and the size of spheres of influence.  The third figure reflects interconnectivity, but not sphere of influence.

Figure 1 displays the tweets about seven rumors on rioting in the UK spread via Twitter.  The Guardian’s team wanted to be able to discern fact from fiction.  They looked at how the rumors began, grew and eventually proved true or false.   

Figure 2 examines one rumor in detail.  One person starts a virtual wildfire of gossip with one tweet. 

Figure 1 Visualization of all rumors concerning riots in London

Retrieved from:   and from .


Figure 2 Influence of one person

Retrieved from:  . 

The Guardian reported that this rumor began with one tweet; he or she had 35 followers at the time.  Each circle indicates a network.  Note that the rumor expanded to other networks.  [Blue arrow added to indicate circle outlined in blue – the origination point.  Green arrow points to the number of “followers”.]    Important note:  This rumor is unsubstantiated and the conversation eventually died.  The visual gives an idea of how rumors can spread from one network to another and how others interact with the information.

Figure 3 is another static image from video depicting tweets in real time using the “VAeq hash tag. [#VAeq stands for Virginia earthquake and the hash tag codes tweets to allow searching them in a collective.]  The lightest area on the map is the epicenter.  Lines depict connections in a network where one user directed a tweet to another, specific user.  Messages did not dead-end when sent from one person to another – rather the messages spread.  Interesting note:  tweets spread faster than the motion of the earthquake.

Readers are encouraged to view the source videos as static images are only a snapshot of events and the videos provide a better understanding.


Figure 3 Network connections

Retrieved from .


These visualizations help explain viral videos and the impact of “word of mouth”.  Consider “dog poop girl” who left her university after someone posted a video of her refusing to clean up after her dog.  (Houghton and Joinson, 2010)

This free flow of information allows global connectivity and relationship building, but it also exposes us to dangers.  The next two images are from government entities warning citizens they do not always know who has access to their content or what they reveal about themselves in their content.


The video is a lighthearted attempt by UK’s Ministry of Defence to make a strong and serious point:  when we share ourselves online our content gives away more than we may intend.


The US government warns as well: 

Figure 5 What are they scheduling?

Retrieved from:


Lack of privacy awareness is not limited to use of social media.  On the contrary,  lack of knowledge extends to the entire web.  (Langenderfer, 2009)  Every website visit leaves digital fingerprints, prints that remain as long as electricity powers the internet.  (Langenderfer, 2009)  Some sites, like Facebook, track every move of members and non-members whether logged on or not.  (Acohido, 2011)  Presse (2011) writes that Julian Assange of Wikileaks believes the “Internet has become [sic] ‘surveillance machine’.” (p. 1)

Privacy – what it means


Goldsborough (2010) defines privacy as a “concept” similar to “anonymity” stating that being anonymous allows us to “hide” our identity and privacy deals with “protecting” our “information”.  (para 3)  For some, anonymity is the means to protecting their information.  Houghton and Joinson (2010) believe that privacy is the ability to control “when, how and to what extent…information” is shared with the world.  (p. 76)  Chen, Chen, Lo, and Yang (2008) report that we have “the right to control one’s [sic] own exposure conditions (Rachels 1975)”.  (p. 230)

Privacy means being able to withdraw and shield oneself from unwanted public scrutiny and or engagement and being able to shield information that reveals identity from being shared in back channels without the individual’s knowledge or control. 

            Why it matters

Chen et al. (2002)  believe humans have “privacy rights” and those rights result in benefits. (p. 231)   Rights include “family and friendship intimacy, isolation (Pederson1997), solitude, anonymity and reserve (Westin 1967).” (p. 231)  Exercising these rights results in “autonomy, confiding, rejuvenation, contemplation and creativity (Pederson 1997)”.  (p. 231)

Privacy is crucial to intimacy.  Houghton and Johnson (2010) quote “Reiman (1976) …only because we are able to withhold personal information about – and forbid intimate observation of – ourselves from the rest of the world, can we give out personal information – and allow intimate observations – to friends and/or lovers, that constitute intimate relationships…”. (p. 78)


            Human capital or Assets

Ashrafi and Kuilboer (2005) maintain “e-commerce…developed entire information systems dedicated” to “aggregating” data on individuals. (para. Introduction) Ashrafi and Kuilboer (2005)  reveal that Walmart has a collection system “exceeding 500 terabytes” of information, “in contrast to the…40 terabytes” collected by the IRS.  (para. 8)

Acohido and Sergent (2011) recount that Facebook tracks its visitors whether members or not in order to provide a better “experience”. 

Facilities that store what Chellappa and Sin (2005) call “personally identifiable information” frequently fail. (p. 188)   Goldsborough (2010) relates awareness of a need for privacy did not arise until violations occurred in events such as “AT&T’s accidental exposure of the cell phone numbers of …New York Mayor Bloomberg and Rahm Emanuel”.  Goldsborough (2010) explains this event also reveals that we are not “protecting” our privacy as we thought. 

Chen et al. (2008) and Regan (2002) express concern that this kind of surveillance negatively influences the future of the online civilization. 

            Crime and/or surveillance

Goldsborough (2010) explains disaggregating compiled data reveals eerily accurate virtual portraits without explicit information sharing.  Two MIT students conducted an analysis of 4,000 Facebook profiles and identified which belonged to gay men with a “78% accuracy” rate.  (Goldsborough, 2010 para. 8)  Ashrafi and Kuilboer (2005) use the term “dossier” to describe current information-gathering practices.  (p. 1)

Regan (2002) attempts to avert a decline into a “’risk society’ (Beck 1992; Ericson and Haggerty 1997) sheds more light on the dynamic…every institution…collects information about that individual and her activities.” (p. 387)   The risk society enters a vicious cycle where “collective fear and foreboding underpin the value system of the unsafe society”.  (Regan 2002 p. 387)  This fear leads to more surveillance and so perpetuates the cycle.

            Permanent record

Siegle (2011) writes that “…online conversations are persistent.  They exist indefinitely for anyone to find at any point in time.  Every misstep is documented for eternity.”  (p. 15) Mills reports the Library of Congress is archiving the “tweet stream” of as a sort of historical record.  (2011)


Hollywood stars might say privacy means being able to take the family out in public without a crowd following.  Mrs. Kravitz’ neighbors might say it means being able to go out in the yard without her watching through the curtains.  Hollywood paparazzi and the Mrs. Kravitz of the world reveal that we believe we are safe to conduct ourselves inside our homes in any manner we see fit without censure but that, upon exiting our homes, we realize the potential for scrutiny.  With scrutiny comes the potential for applause or criticism and disdain.  (Houghton and Joinson, 2010)  Sociology 101 teaches that social norms dictate proper and acceptable public behavior and we attempt to adhere to those norms in order to maintain relationships unless we are deliberately attempting to break out of the social roles dictated to us.  (Regan 2002) (Chen et al. 2008) (Houghton and Joinson, 2010)

            Masked men

Chen et al. (2008) and Regan (2002) posit that use of anonymity or pseudonym use to conceal identity carries risks.  Anonymity and its cousin, pseudonym, provides some safeguards for privacy, but can lead to another set of problems.  Chen et al. (2008) affirms “Metcalfe (1994) argues that anonymity puts men in a mask and is the first step in leaping towards a barbaric society.”(p.230)  Chen et al. (2008) believes it is an evolutionary setback.

The potential exists for online social networks to develop into a virtual wild west complete with masked bandits and chaos or a new global civil community. (Regan, 2002) (Chen, Chen, Yo, and Lang, 2008)  Author note:  This was written well before the Asian Spring.


Regan (2002) discusses at length the lack of visible boundaries and the need for visual cues that alert us to possible privacy violations in the online environment. 

J. D. Salinger lived in the same space of time as Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook.  (Anonymous 2010)  Salinger fought so hard for his privacy he went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  (Anonymous, 2010)  Zuckerberg is quoted as having wondered why he would ever want to put any information online.  ( Duncan, 2010 p. 48)  Six years later he was defending the exposure of Facebook members’ information to the public as a new societal norm. (Duncan, 2010)

Policy and legalities

Langenderfer and Miyazaki (2009) cite the First Amendment right to religious freedom as giving “the right to be free from governmental impositions of religious practice that intrude into private decision making.” (p. 380) Langenderfer and Miyazaki (2009) state the Third Amendment against the “quartering of soldiers” affords the home “protection from governmental invasion” and the Fifth Amendment secures “the privacy of individually held information.” 

Rosoff (2011) reports Google recently settled with the FTC agreeing to oversight for the next 20 years.  Tate (2011) thinks Facebook’s out of court settlement agreeing to twenty years of oversight means getting off too easy for its glaring privacy violations

The One Hundred Thirteenth Congress (2007), looked into Facebook’s business merger with DoubleClick, a data clearinghouse with the result being the stated need for policies and oversight and none put in place.

The scope of literature surveyed for the current study finds policies needed that protect personal identifiable information while allowing the free exercise of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


A survey embedded in a personal blog reflects that 80% of survey takers think about their privacy, 20% of respondents checked that they never thought about it. 

Initially, privacy literacy was considered as the key to guarding online privacy.  A sample group was formed and information disseminated regarding privacy violations by Facebook.  Most of the sample group chose to endure the violations rather than endure life without the social network.  


Digital immigrants grew up with an inert web that existed primarily as a cache of information, not a collection device although if an internet provider wanted they could collect user data.  (Regan 2002) 

Digital immigrants and natives have yet to realize that Web 2.0, content generation, and attempts to capitalize on that content morph the web into a data collection device. (Regan, 2002) (Ashrafi and Kuilboer, 2005)  (Chen, Chen, Lo, and Yang, 2008) (Presse 2011)  Humans, while still called users on the front end [the part you see when you log in]; are considered assets and virtually milked on the back end.  (Regan, 2002) (Ashrafi and Kuilboer, 2005) (Chen, Chen, Lo, and Yang, 2008) (Presse, 2011)

Chellapa and Sin (2005) believe modification of Terms of Service and/or EULA’s for clarity and user control will better safeguard information identifying an individual. 

This finding would make it seem government regulation the only recourse for guarding online privacy; however, government has failed to do anything except watch. 

If a civil, global civilization is to persist, digital citizens must agree on and institute norms similar to the norms Auel’s cave people employed:  the ability to turn a blind eye when a neighbor does something potentially embarrassing and consequences for boundary violation.












113th United States Congress  Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust,          Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights 2007.  An examination of the Google-Doubleclick        merger and the            online advertising industry:  what are the risks for competition and privacy?      Retrieved from         :39015.pdf


Acohido, B & Sergent, J.  (2011, November 16).   Privacy advocates wary of site’s tactics.  USA Today,      p. 1.


Anonymous.  (2010, March ). J. D. Salinger, 1919-2010. Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, 59 (2), 48-49. 


Ashrafi, N. & Kuilboer, J. (2005).  Online privacy policies:  An empirical perspective on self-regulatory      practices.  Journal of Electronic Commerce in Organizations, 3,             61-74. 

Auel, J.  (1980).  Clan of the cave bear.  New York: Random House.

Brandeis, L. D. and Warren, S. D. (1890) The Right to Privacy.  Harvard Law Review. vol IV, Dec 15          No. 5

Chellappa, R. & Sin, R. (2005).  Personalization versus privacy:  An empirical examination of the online     consumer’s dilemma.  Information Technology & Management, 6, 181-202. doi: 10.1007/s10799-         005-5879-y

Chen, H. G.,  Chen, C. C.,  Lo, L.,  and Yang, S. C. (2008). Online privacy control via anonymity and             pseudonym: Cross-cultural implications. Behaviour & Information Technology, 27(3), 229-242.             doi:10.1080/01449290601156817

Duncan, G. (2010, March) Facebook founder:  online privacy not a “social norm”.  Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, 59 (2), 48-49. 

Goldsborough, R. (2010). Are you protecting your privacy online?  Teacher Librarian, 37 (5), p. 72. 

Houghton, D. J. & Joinson, A. N. (2010).  Privacy, social network sites, and social relations. Journal of       Technology in Human Services, 28, 74-94.  doi:    10.1080/15228831003770775

Langenderfer, J. & Miyazaki, A. D. (2009).  Privacy in the information economy.  The Journal of    Consumer Affairs, 43 (3), 380-388. 

Presse, A. F. (2011, November) Internet has become ‘surveillance machine’: Julian Assange.  Common       Dreams.  Retrieved from

Regan, Priscilla M. (2002) Privacy as a common good in the digital world.  Information,       Communication           & Society, 5, p. 382-405.  doi:10.1080/13691180210159328

Rosoff, M. (2011, March 30)  Google Blew It So Badly On “Buzz” That It Has Been Placed On Privacy       Probation For The Next 20 Long Years.  Business Insider.  Retrieved from         privacy-policy#ixzz1gGuL5Edq

Tate, R. (November, 2011)  Facebook just played the government.  Gawker.   Retrieved from   



Figure 1 Rise and fall of rumors on Twitter (12/7/2011).  Image retrieved from       and from     2011 December 11.


Figure 2 How the rumor unfolded (12/7/2011).  Image retrieved from     2011 December 11.


Figure 3 Watch The Virginia Earthquake Spread Across Twitter  Image retrieved from    December 11.


Figure 4 Careless talk costs lives Image retrieved from  2011 December 12.


Figure 5  US Army warns Tweet with care Image retrieved from   2011 December 12.




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