Privacy has been in the news a lot recently. Whether it is the Cambridge Analytica scandal or the impending General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which will have a significant impact on marketers’ use of personal data, awareness of privacy issues is higher than ever.
It’s about time too. As individuals, our privacy and rights as individuals have been steadily eroded as the era of big data has advanced. Social networks leverage our profile information and on-site actions to micro-target advertising. Media outlets take our tweets and twist them out of context to drive click-bait stories. CCTV cameras capture our every move.
More and more with every passing year, we live in a surveillance culture.
The double-edged sword of technology
There was a time when, if you were travelling for work, people accepted you were out of contact except in a genuine emergency. But then we all gained access to email, mobile phones and instant messaging. Suddenly the concept of ‘office hours’ started shifting away from the traditional nine-to-five towards 24/7. Now anyone can send you a low-priority request and still expect a response. This ease of access has, I think, made us less considerate of other people’s time and priorities. It is essentially an invasion of privacy.
Now I love technology. It is a great enabler. When I am away, I can FaceTime the kids in the evening. They will send me photos and videos of what they are up to. And they can even track my flight home via a real-time app that tells them where my plane is and when I have landed.
But there are definitely times when technology makes the world a less private place too. It’s a real double-edged sword.
What price 15 minutes of privacy?
The term ’15 minutes of fame’ was inspired by a quote from the artist Andy Warhol which is 50 years old this year. He said:
In the future
, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.
’15 minutes of fame’ has become a byword for our modern celebrity-obsessed, fame-driven culture. It is now possible for someone of boundless ambition but limited talent to gain notoriety by appearing on the kind of TV series favoured by E4 or MTV, with the aim of joining the Z-list circuit as one of those people who are famous solely for appearing on reality shows.
But at what cost?
I attended a presentation a couple of years ago focussing on millennials and their attitudes to social media. A generation characterised by the concept of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) is being replaced by one that is characterised by FOSO (Fear Of Standing Out). They’re more aware of how public everything they say is and acutely aware of the risks that go with it. That in turn means they value their privacy more in a world where this is increasingly difficult to protect.
It’s something many of us are only now beginning to appreciate. We live in a world where privacy is a scarce resource in the same way as time or money.
Of course, there is an easy solution: to switch off (or at least turn down) our social media presence. The last week has seen the emergence of the #DeleteFacebook movement. Some commentators have even wondered aloud whether this spells the end for the world’s largest social network.
I doubt it. As much as we value our privacy, it’s also human nature to crave a sense of belonging. Facebook has 2.2 billion active users worldwide. That’s one in four people on Earth – and much more if you live in Europe, the US or a similarly technologically advanced nation. Most of our friends are on Facebook and the network is the easiest way to keep in touch with them. How many people will choose to sever that connection? Not as many as some seem to think.
And herein lies the challenge for us and our children. Never mind 15 minutes of fame: what price 15 minutes of privacy?
Time to worry?
I worry about the claustrophobic effect that living in an always-on, always-public world will have on our children and their mental health. The extension of bullying from the school playground into the bedroom, enabled by social networks, is just one example of how harmful a lack of privacy can be and how hard it can be to escape from the world.
I worry about how much of my kids’ lives I share online. On balance, I’m okay with what I’ve done to date. But I am increasingly concerned about how much I should continue to share as they get older. Much less, I think.
I worry about how much data big organisations possess about all of us and how easy it is to exploit those who are vulnerable or open to suggestion. (But not enough to delete my social media accounts …) He may have picked the wrong year, but I wonder how far we are away from a dystopian world akin to George Orwell’s 1984.
Yes, we’re increasingly aware of the risk of sharing and exploiting personal data. But will we choose privacy over sharing our data when the fear of being stuck on the outside looking in is so strong?
The biggest risk isn’t big data. It isn’t the violation of privacy rights. The biggest risk is us and the fact we can’t say “no”.
Will our kids grow up in a world where the notion of privacy is little more than an outdated concept? And do we care enough to do anything about it?