Why does technology present so many privacy problems?

Consider the following facts:

What is it with technology that makes these kinds of privacy breaches so common?

The importance of physical objects in privacy

We recruit physical objects to prop up our privacy. Doors, walls and curtains help us control access to information by obscuring the view into private space. Sometimes, objects are used to indicate a purely symbolic boundary, as in the case of a window. In public or shared spaces, we recruit physical objects to demarcate space we claim as private. Yoga class participants carry out this process by placing their mat on a carefully chosen spot. New arrivals to the class know that space is now “taken” by another student.

An office with walls and a door is less accessible than a mere desk – even when the office door is open. Fictional news reporter Les Nessman illustrated this by painting yellow lines on the carpet around his desk. Visitors to his “office” were asked to pantomime knocking on the “door.”

Figure 1: Les Nessman answering his “door”


The physical context of information tells us how private that information is intended to be. A piece of paper sitting in plain view suggests it is not private information. But that place that same piece of paper in a folder, and shut it in a drawer and the information is clearly intended to be private. The physical context itself connotes the nature of the information.

In the digital world, we no longer have these physical objects to help us. The digital context lacks the same fidelity of the physical world. Without physical objects to indicate the nature of privacy, digital objects typically are given metadata to indicate their private nature.

Metadata’s primary shortcoming is that it doesn’t relate the object to other objects, thereby robbing the user of a rich source of information. Imagine a photo placed in a frame and set on a piano. Imagine the same photo stuck on a corkboard, next to a mug shot. Imagine it again placed in a shoebox and tucked under a bed. Then imagine this photo posted on Facebook. The human mind quickly intuits the meaning of the object by means of comparing it to other, nearby objects. In the digital realm, objects are stripped of this context. Hashtags or metadata lack the richness of the physical context, and makes it that much more difficult to intuit the private nature of the object.

Ethnography and the importance of attachments and involvements

Elsewhere I have argued that ethnography is one of the best ways to understand how products relate to people and to the world. I argued that Heidegger’s concepts of “attachments” and “involvements” are what ethnographers should be looking for in the field. How does this product fit with other products? How does it fit with with people? You must understand a potential user’s system if you’re developing a product, and ethnography gives you a high-fidelity view into the user’s world.

This is one of the reasons we have so many privacy breaches; digital products were developed without understanding the user’s attachments and involvements, especially those relating to privacy. Sadly, entire business models have been built on users not realizing this fact, and over-sharing their information in a digital space. In the physical world, they might unconsciously recruit physical objects to communicate a high-fidelity privacy desire. We need more systems to integrate this desire, but with authentically digital options.




[1]       A. Westin, Privacy And Freedom, vol. 25, no. 1. New York: Athenum, 1967.

[2]       A. Cerra and C. James, Identity Shift: Where Identity Meets Technology in A Networked Age. Indianapolis: John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

[3]       M. Madejski, M. Johnson, and S. M. Bellovin, “The Failure of Online Social Network Privacy Settings,” New York, 2011.

[4]       B. Meeder, J. Tam, P. G. Kelley, and L. F. Cranor, “RT @ IWantPrivacy : Widespread Violation of Privacy Settings in the Twitter Social Network,” in Proceedings of the Web, Vol. 2, 2009.

[5]       T. a. Pempek, Y. a. Yermolayeva, and S. L. Calvert, “College students’ social networking experiences on Facebook,” J. Appl. Dev. Psychol., vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 227–238, May 2009.

[6]       E. Protalinksi, “13 Million US Facebook Users Don’t Change Privacy Settings,” ZDNet News2, 2012. [Online]. Available: http://www.zdnet.com/blog/facebook/13-million-us-facebook-users-dont-change-privacy-settings/12398. [Accessed: 06-Dec-2013].

Why does Snapchat matter?

Why is Snapchat processing 50M messages a day? Why are these message not emails? Or Facebook messages? why are people choosing for their content to disappear?

Is this picture really worth saving?

There are several reasons why someone would choose an ephemeral tool like Snapchat. First, the most obvious: the content is not persistent. This is the primary problem with the Web in general, and Facebook in particular. To share now means to share in perpetuity. Certainly, there are privacy settings, but the digital landscape is littered with the corpses of those who took such settings at face value. And why should we be surprised?

We aren’t actually surprised. We know the “real” social world bears witness to any number of low-tech embarrassing slips. Take, for example, a “hot mic” incident recorded for others to hear. Observe the right holy chaos that technology wrought on the lives of politicians telling the truth without actually knowing it.

The hot mic is an exceptional incident that garners a great deal of attention (and not just due to the high profile character of its victims). On the web, this kind of slip is a routine daily occurrence.  We have had so many embarrassing slips that we cannot possibly catalogue them all. They run the gamut from the “oops, my mom saw my dirty post,” to “I got fired for talking about my employer.” There are even web sites devoted to showing us the hilarity of these slips. Facebook Fail is guaranteed to make you LOL.

The web’s routine failure to protect us from embarrassment has made its persistence a liability.

Enter Snapchat.

Betcha he wishes he’d used Snapchat now

Snapchat allows you to turn the Web back into regular conversation, shared with only those “present,” and not recorded for anyone else to hear. It turns off the “hot mic” of the web and alleviates the anxiety of navigating the shifting sands of Facebook’s privacy settings. Persistence has now become a liability for many Web users. Snapchat allows you to confidently send content without worrying about it. The content simply disappears, making it more like conversation before we had the Web.

The second reason ephemeral content tools are attractive is less obvious, but just as important. On the one hand, the web offers persistence, which as I have argued can be a distinct liability. But on the other hand, it also offers archiving, which is generally thought to be a good thing. What was the name of that guy who sent you his resume in an email? Where is that restaurant we went to that time? How much time does it take to fly to Hawaii? All of these questions can be answered by leveraging the persistence of the Web. And this is a good thing. This is precisely what Vannevar Bush imagined when we wrote about the “memex” back in 1947 — all the world’s knowledge available on the desktop.

But all the world’s knowledge becomes total chaos without any librarians (yay! Librarians!). That is not what Vannevar Bush imagined. He did not foresee the sheer randomness of what effortless information sharing would bring. Google itself would not exist were it not for this chaos. But at least on the Web, Google does a good job of ordering at least some of the chaos. It doesn’t do such a good job of helping you find those Power Point slides you made 10 years ago, in part because there is simply too much digital content for us to wade through and in part because this detritus sadly ends up on our hard drives.

Our desktop computers, our mobile devices, our web-based email have become dumping grounds for our digital hoarding habits. Rare is it when a user asks herself, will I need to find this three-word email in the future? Should I tag it with a color, or a category? She simply whips it off and forgets about it. But that three-line email clogs up her inbox just as much as a 14-paragraph missive from her bosses’ bosses’ boss, which could affect her very job. There is no immediately apparent difference between the two emails, even if she is experimenting with Gmail’s “significance” algorithm. Her meta data is only ever as good as the effort she puts into them.

If emails were paper letters, we would need to build 15 million more houses just to hold the crap we send to each other. Those houses would be filled to the rafters. All of us are digital hoarders; we just don’t see it. Our digital hygiene habits are very bad.

They are about to get a whole lot worse.

We are taking pictures at an unprecedented rate. The best estimate we have is 3.8 trillion digital pictures are in existence, and we’re generating between 500 million and 1 billion every year. Just over a quarter of those are taken with smartphones. Very few of them are precious. How can we know which are precious? We must put in the effort to separate the significant photo from the insiginficant one. Since we cannot find our photos in our morass of digital content, and put in slices of time to tag them between ill-fated bouts of “inbox zero” campaigns, we are likely going to make things worse. Much worse.

Enter Snapchat once again.

The mere decision to use Snapchat means the user has already considered this photo to be of little archival value. Right then and there, he has succeeded in reducing his future cognitive load. But even better, he doesn’t even need to consider the photo ever again, even if it were to merely dismiss its importance. Even that tiny cognitive burden is gone. The photo is gone. Snapchat came and took out the garbage that you put in a particular pile. You don’t even have to think of that pile. It is simply gone. How liberating!

These are the main two reasons I believe ephemeral content is going to take root in our collective psyche. But as I consider this topic, I will add to this list. I will also consider the implications as we start to forget to forget. We will no longer even notice the piles of content around our digital houses. What effect will that have on our mental models? It may even signal the final shift from an analogue world masquerading as a digital one, with its transparent metaphors of desktops and file folders that scream 20th century. But what will replace this analogue playing dress-up? What is the shape of that truly digital mental model for our content? It’s hard to say.