Publicy And The Erosion Of Privacy

I was unable to present my talk at last week’s Social Business Summit in Austin because of my mother’s grave condition and subsequent passing. But I had written a post on the topic that Brian Mennell put up on the Dachis Group blog today:

Stowe Boyd, Publicy And The Erosion Of Privacy

Privacy concerns seem to be constantly in the news, like the recent furor about ‘full body scanners’ being deployed in airports to peer below our clothes as a response to the Abdulmutallab bomb attempt, or the spasm of concerns following the recent demo of TAT’s Recognizr augmented reality application that can determine the identity of people from cell phone pictures or video streams based on public domain photos.

The Western concept of our rights of privacy boil down to the right to conceal information about ourselves, as in the privacy of our homes, or the skin below our clothes. It is tied very tightly to our sharing of physical space, and the mores and laws that arbitrate the rights of the individual to conceal information from others and the rights of the state to demand and access information about us for public order.

It is generally illegal in the US to wear a mask or other face covering that would conceal identity. In Virginia, for example, it is a class 6 felony. A man in West Virginia was arrested for wearing a Grinch mask, a few years ago. When told by a policeman that it was illegal, he stated that he didn’t believe it, and refused to remove the mask, leading to his arrest.

Consider that in other cultures, covering of the face is required by religious and tribal laws. Women in much of the Muslim world wear various sorts of face coverings, some that completely conceal the face. Berber men cover their faces, and especially their mouths when eating with strangers. Therefore, observant Muslim women and Berber men are committing felonies in the US by simply walking down the street.

The coming clash between privacy and what I am calling publicy is going to be as large a chasm as that which exists between us and the Berber.

Privacy is largely based on negotiated means to share physical space. Property has boundaries, and people must not trespass without permission. By extension, individuals and companies can conceal what goes on behind the walls of their property, or what is going on in their own heads — subject to the limits of the law.

But a great deal of what goes on in public space is exactly that: public. In the US, for example, it is legal to take pictures of public spaces — and all the people that are there — without asking for the permission of those photographed. And, as I have pointed out earlier, we are not allowed to wear masks or to take other elaborate safeguards to conceal our identity in public, either.

The advent of technologies like Recognizr is inevitable, and there will be no opt-in rigamarole to block the widespread use of such tools. It will soon be a commonplace that people who you don’t know will know who you are. A waitress will say, “Follow me, Mr. Boyd,” without an introduction. Someone next to you on an escalator will ask you how you get ideas for your blog.

We are aware, today, going into a business meeting, that the woman on the other side of the table has most likely looked at your LinkedIn account, read your recent Twitter posts, and looked at the top ten things fetched up by Google based on your name. We are over the fact that old news never dies on the Web, and that a photo of you on a Facebook page may come back to haunt you in an interview setting.

But the true erosion of privacy is not coming about by bad people using stolen information. Cases of identity theft or phishing are illegal, and will remain so.

The end of an era based on privacy ethics and laws is being ushered in by the Web, because the Web is not a shared physical space, leaving various metaphors to the side.

When someone reads my Twitter stream, he does not know if I have my hat on or off. I can be truly anonymous online, in a way that is either impossible or illegal in ‘meatspace’ interactions.

And more importantly, I can belong simultaneously to a non-overlapping set of social circles in which different behavior and social rules are at work. In each of these settings, I may chose to define myself through different sorts of relationships, interactions, and modes of expression. They could range from Suicide Girls to NY Times People, and every shade of expression in between or imaginable.

Privacy is linked to a notion of a unitary self, and the individual’s choices about what to expose to who. Publicy is based on the premise of a socially-defined self, a composite of social contracts through which the individual explores potentially independent selves, each of which is in a sense a construct of the context.

Stated perhaps more plainly, when living publicly online, it is possible for an individual to be involved in many communities, and those communities can have very different notions about sharing and exposing the self.

Businesses are not people, but are made up of communities of people, and interact with other communities in many ways, like media. But increasingly, businesses can interact directly with individuals through online tools, such as blogs, social networks, and other social tools. Sometimes this interaction is relatively impersonal — like a company-hosted online forum — but may be very personal, based on the direct interactions of employees with customers, partners and other non-employees.

We can expect to see a constant tension — if not open conflicts — as our premises of privacy, based on physical shared space and concrete property, come into contact with the new ethos of publicy, in which openness and sharing of collective meaning form the basis of affiliation.

At the same time, businesses are learning to use openness about their business dealings as a way to garner public support in what historically would have been back room business negotiations or secret legal proceedings. Consider the recent case where Time Warner Cable went public over a fee dispute with the News Corporation, and mounted a campaign to build public support for its position in the negotiations.

The largest change is yet to come, however, as businesses move away from an operational ethos predominantly based on shared physical space and a shift to Web-based sociality.  As this increasingly takes root in the operational DNA of business, privacy considerations will erode, and will be superseded by publicy considerations. As with the open Web, individuals will self-aggregate in networks defined by shared meaning and collective purpose. What they share with each other in these contexts are based on the nature of the shared social context, rather than shared physical space.  I do not expect this transition to be either smooth or easy; on the contrary, we should anticipate great upheaval.

Imagine if an engineering group within Toyota had decided to disclose what was known within that group about accelerators to Toyota customers, as soon as they realized there was a problem. In a corporate culture based on industrial era privacy, that would be tantamount to treason. In a corporate culture based on openness and trust, and where the engineers had direct contacts with many Toyota customers in a medium based on openness and sharing of information, they would have disclosed the problem at the outset, and would have saved the company billions in lost revenue and unknown degrees of trust and social capital.

For a good many years, we will see more executive suites trying to hold on to a world based on privacy, secrecy, and perhaps outright deceit, while the great majority of employees are moving personally toward a world based on publicy. Expect controversy and a very difficult midwifing of this brave new world.

I did give the same talk earlier in the week, at We Media, and there is a video of that here.

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