What Does Privacy Mean?

Think about your Facebook profile.

Now think about your social security number.

Now, think about both at once; merging into one. What are they, really, but two different signals of your identity? Both provide some valuable information about you. Your social security number gives me access to a great deal of your government sanctioned identity; your Facebook profile, to your private identity. As one, they provide a reasonably complete picture of you as both a citizen and a consumer.

Of tonight’s wide ranging seminar discussion, this was to me one of the most intriguing concepts. Reimagining identity as a privately issued, privately monitored creation is a far cry from our current state, but at the same time, not totally implausible, given how much of ourselves we pour into the web.

I could visualize the transition to corporate-issued identity as a slippery slope from today to a very different, yet still very familiar, tomorrow. Perhaps it begins as Facebook offering secondary bank account verification, using facts about you that only you (and it) know, partnering with some of America’s largest banks. Credit card fraud becomes more difficult; consumers are happy. Speaking of credit cards, perhaps Facebook rolls out its own version of a credit score; you might post about your homeowner status, for example. For only a few dollars a month, Facebook will let your trustworthiness speak for itself. With a high Facebook score comes flowing credit.

The system could be applied to insurance; opt into Facebook’s safe living score, and get reduced rates for good habits- like being tagged in a photo wearing your seatbelt. Maybe, eventually, you can register a company in some states using your Facebook ID. Maybe you can get a driver’s licensee; file your taxes online; register for state or local services.

Eventually, Facebook is the medium through which you communicate with the infrastructure of the world. In the end, you won’t have told it that much more than what it already knew; it will have simply consolidated your data and put it to work. In this scenario, we all gain quite a bit of ease as our many logins for banks, credit reporting, and government services are consolidated. But what have we lost?

By our definition of privacy, quite a lot. Our identities will have become one of a swirling mass of numbers available to a private company for use, generally, as they wish. But in some ways, we’ve already lost the privacy of anonymity; at least, those of us who use the internet have. Why did I go through this scenario? Maybe because I am wondering what privacy is worth, and what convenience is worth, as well. The idea of Facebook as identity provider shows us how much control the owners of our data have or can have over our lives. When we consider the future of the internet and of identity, it seems that we are staring down something that looks increasingly more convenient and less private. Fifty years ago, privacy looked much different. It will certainly look much different a year from now. Is the new definition a better one? Is convenience worth privacy? I am coming to the conclusion that this is a decision each individual must make for themselves.

But in a world of corporate identity, it is Facebook that decides for us.

1 Comment »

  1. Mike Smith

    October 28, 2017 @ 6:03 pm


    I really appreciate your line of thought here. Privacy and convenience are traded off against each other in today’s world. I enjoyed following your line of thought as we continue to give up certain aspects of privacy in the quest for ever greater convenience, and maybe security from certain threats.

    While I was reading your post, my mind was drawn more toward a corporate future where the Internet of Things (IoT) discussion took us. Instead of Facebook, which I think of as something we give information that we want the world (or some part of it) to know about us, the IoT places Internet-connected sensors throughout our lives and we enable the connection and data collection. In your insurance example, for example, I don’t have to post a picture of me wearing a seatbelt. My car’s sensors have already told Amazon, which the car manufacturer integrated into the car’s design because I as a consumer wanted my Android/iPhone to automatically connect with my car so that I could hear my Amazon Unlimited Playlist while driving. Credit card fraud goes away because Amazon can track me, or at least know when I’m near one of its Echo devices. I can’t be both in Kentucky charging a new TV to my credit card and in Cambridge talking with Alexa in my house.

    Fascinating thoughts. Thanks!

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