Why online privacy is essential

By Thane on Fri 13 April 2012

Psychology and philosophy have fascinated me since I was a kid, and I've read tons of material on these subjects over the years. I've also seen quite a few articles over the years talking about online privacy, and how easily we give up private information via social media (for some random examples, see this article and this one), and having worked in digital media for a few years, where the more information one can collect on a consumer the better for providing insightful feedback to companies (on which they could eventually capitalise financially), it got me thinking about online privacy and its relevance in society.

It's actually quite a simple matter: healthy boundaries foster healthy relationships (do a Google search for "healthy emotional boundaries" and see the first few links that come up).

To understand boundaries though, one has to differentiate between information that is private and information that is secret. As per this article:

Keeping something private is an act of choosing boundaries and staying comfortably within them.

Keeping something secret is an act of hiding from the pain of disclosing something shameful.

This difference centering around the feelings about the information which is withheld is the principle factor in the difference between what is held private and that which is secret. It is this element of shame or fear attached to the secret that makes it different from something private.

What sort of society are we going to foster in the long run if small groups of people (read: Google/Facebook/etc.) force larger groups of people (read: the rest of the population) into situations where their personal boundaries are continuously violated - usually without their knowledge and for the sake of profits? See this funny YouTube clip of the "G-Mail man". I'm personally not comfortable with sending private information (note: I didn't say secret information) via someone that stores that private information and uses it to their personal gain without my consent.

If someone wants my private information, I want them to ask me for it and respect me when I refuse to provide it (this is why I'm not on Facebook or Google+: I don't see any way of using their services without my boundaries being violated). Part of the problem, I think, is that companies don't want to take the time to really explain to their customers what information they want and how that allows them to create better products and services for them, and ask their permission (in a way that the customers don't have to read through pages of legalese) to have that private information.

This lack of respect for other people is incredibly unhealthy, in my opinion. I think that privacy is a fundamental human need that we'll never get away from, and we need to stand against those who disrespect that. Often even governments will pass laws that will actively work against our need for privacy.

What long-term damage will be caused to the fabric of society if personal boundary violation were a continuous, legal, and often even profitable activity? I think we have a complex and multifaceted problem here that's going to need serious thought and attention, and a little heart, on the part of those actively violating others' boundaries.