The death of privacy

If there's one goal driving the continued and unprecedented expansion of the Internet into every aspect of our lives, it's the idea that people should be able to connect to one another and to the collective knowledge of the entire world with as little effort and as much convenience as possible.

With the rise of social networks, blogs, and forums, all of which are almost instantly indexed and searchable, the Internet is much like a massive neural network and we are all neurons, adding our individual bits of information into the mix. And like a brain, the Internet has a capacity for memory that is both vast and imperfect.

In a biological brain, memories that are rarely recalled or that are insignificant tend to fade away. In much the same way, information on the Internet that is interesting and widespread is far more likely to be discovered (or "remembered") than information that is uninteresting or unimportant.

Social networking helps to ensure that interesting information is propagated and uninteresting information is not by aggregating this information in front of millions of eyes and thus encouraging its spread. The more people see a site that interests them, the more people link to that site and the more likely that site is to appear prominently in search results; thus the site is cemented in the Internet's memory.

This is all wonderful if we assume that the spread of information is inherently a Good Thing™, but what happens when those millions of eyes latch onto something that would otherwise have faded into obscurity? In an instant, a piece of information that was harmless when seen by a handful of people can become incredibly damaging when seen by millions.

Consider, for example, the recent hoopla over Google Street View. People in public places have no reasonable expectation of privacy and normally wouldn't be concerned if a photographer inadvertently included them in a picture of a building or landmark. You might not care if a few visitors to a gallery or readers of a photography magazine saw a picture of you—an anonymous person they don't know and will likely never meet—standing on a street picking your nose; but when the entire world can see you standing on a street picking your nose, and when they can email it to their friends, who can email it to their friends, who can email it to your friends, you've suddenly got a huge problem.

Consider also the recent case of high school pole vaulter Allison Stokke, who gained the unwanted attention of millions after a photo from a track meet was posted on a local website reporting on the event. Normally, the photo would have been seen by only a handful of people and would have been quickly forgotten, but one of those people thought she was attractive and linked to the photo. Other people saw it and were similarly interested, so they propagated the photo, along with other information they managed to dig up about Stokke. Within a matter of days, millions of people from all around the world knew who Allison Stokke was and were sharing information about her. Stokke, who neither expected nor wanted the attention, was understandably horrified.

There are countless other examples like these, some of them lighthearted, like the Star Wars kid or the Numa Numa guy, and others downright creepy. Once the Internet decides a piece of information is notable, it's unlikely to forget it. If that piece of information happens to be about a person, that person has no choice but to try and deal with the consequences—consequences that have been thrust upon them largely by the actions of anonymous strangers.

Short of dismantling the Internet and returning the world to the way it was pre-Information Age, there is no solution to this problem. There may be ways to mitigate it to some extent in the short term, but in the long term, it's only going to get worse.

It may be that our only choice is to accept that privacy is dying and may one day become extinct. In accepting this, perhaps we can learn to cope with it. Or perhaps there isn't any way to cope with it. Perhaps all you can do is hope that you don't wake up one morning and find your life suddenly exposed to the entire world.

Somehow I thought the future would be less scary than this.