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How Clear Is Our Definition of Information Privacy?

In today tech-heavy, socially-enabled world, each headline seems to cloud the line that defines an invasion of privacy. There are so many cases today where technology blurs our view of what is public information andprivacy what should be private. Facebook has been kicked in the teeth for it repeatedly (as have other web apps), and Twitter recently made the news when it challenged DOJ court papers ordering the social service to quietly hand over a slew user information without the users’ knowledge.

Privacy, it seems, is becoming a topic whose subjectivity is a matter of context – and who holds the information that is considered private.

Running quickly through some current headlines, one example is the recent story about the couple in Pennsylvania that is suing Google over their Street View application, a program that provides eye-level views of locations that you can find via Google Maps.

In this couple’s case, their road is marked as a “Private Road”. So, I ask you, if you lived on a private road, does Google have the right to drive on that road for the purpose of photographing, indexing and publishing photos of your residence? I don’t live on a private road, but if I did, that would probably bother me.

From a personal perspective, my son attends college on the east coast. I pay for virtually everything, yet, I have to get his permission for the university to send me the bill and give me access to his grades. They tell me it is a privacy thing. I guess because he is over the age of 18, his grades are his business. I hear the rationale, but it still infuriates me as a parent. Somehow the sense of responsibility that I carried for 18 years as his father doesn’t seem to disappear simply because he has gone away for college, especially when he is doing so on my dime!

I just read a story from the New York Times regarding the privacy of email. We all send it. In fact, I could probably lump you into one of five categories – you either use Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail, AOL, or your ISP’s email service (Comcast, Charter, BellSouth, etc.). My guess is that you routinely send email through these accounts to friends, family, and maybe even a few colleagues. In fact, you’ve probably gone so far as to forward a raunchy joke, or send an edgy political message, or maybe you have even shared a secret presuming that it was confidential because you only shared it with a trusted friend. But are you sure? As it turns out, that may not be so accurate after all.

Increasingly, email correspondence, along with other records of online activity, is being subpoenaed as part of a variety of investigations. According to the article, Verizon claims to have received more than 90,000 requests for personal customer data in the forms of subpoenas and other court orders. I don’t know about you, but I think I just assumed that a deleted email was gone for good, or that something I shared with a family member via email was private. I guess I never considered the real ramifications of that email sitting on a company server somewhere, or as part of a back-up that can be retrieved.

The web has a memory.  The cloud is not your cloud.

It’s hard to say where and when this stops. In fact, it is even harder to define where to draw the line. Should there be a statue of limitations on emails? Should there be restrictions on access to cell phone records that log your location every time you change cell towers? Should there be a way to declare certain communications as private? And does the statement at the end of your email indicating that it is only intended for the person it was addressed to provide any form of protection?

What happens when you are not the holder of the data that might be sought after in a privacy case?  Who is the guardian of a your privacy if it’s not you yourself?  And through what  mechanisms (money, government intervention, subpoena) can the notion of privacy be violated via an ‘interested’ third party?

These are all valid questions that will be explored and tested in our courts at some point. As for me, I can’t answer these questions, but I am definitely concerned and more aware of what I send and to whom. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to check on my son’s latest grades.

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  1. […] was reading this article on the MIPro Consulting web site. It raises some good questions about privacy and current examples in the news. There is a lot of […]

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