Geekamama


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Is privacy just an act?

I keep trying to write something up about the recent New York Times article on how Target gleans information from shoppers to better, well, target them as customers. I’ve swung from “that’s a little eerie” over to “yeah, but data mining can be fun! and beneficial!” to “the practice shouldn’t be banned, but customers need to be aware that it’s happening.” In the end, the one thing that I keep coming back to is this: it’s a little silly to complain about our personal data being used, when we put so much of it out there voluntarily.

Update: Here’s a better summary of the issue: How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did

 

Any time you use a credit card, sign up for a discount shopping card, or create an online account with your personal email address, you’re giving the recipient a way to keep track of the actions associated with that ID. Ever give a doctor’s office or other service your social security number? I’d put money down that they aren’t planning to use it for tax purposes.

People share personal stories on blogs, Twitter and Facebook, choosing to pull back the curtain to the world. Once it’s out there on the ‘net, it’s out there forever. People have lost their jobs because of their Facebook updates, and have been detained by TSA for what they posted on Twitter.

Personally, I’ve been an un-fan of Facebook since the update last October. For the past five months, the songs you’ve listened to and the news stories you’ve read on many websites have gotten shared automatically, rather than letting you choose for yourself. Oh, and that can happen even when you’re not signed in. Sometimes it surprises me how many people are okay with that.

Those of us who are parents have another privacy issue to consider: the privacy of our children, many of whom may not be old enough or savvy enough to realize the implications of the way their parents share (or overshare) information. I wrestled with this issue myself not long after starting this blog, when considering whether I should post pictures of my cute little Kiddo here.

I’m not deluding myself; even though I use a nickname for him here and on Twitter, it wouldn’t be that hard for someone to find out his real name. Birth certificates are public records; depending on the state, all you might need is the child’s date of birth and the full name of one or both parents. How to find those out? Marriage, divorce, and name change records are public data too. And if those don’t pan out, there’s always Spokeo, where fifteen bucks will buy you all kinds of personal information.

Oh, but there’s a much easier route. One common practice on Facebook is to tag pictures of children with the names of their parents. Look for pictures of me, and you’ll find pictures of Kiddo captioned with his real name. Many of those are in albums restricted to “Friends of friends” — which really isn’t a restriction at all, considering how most of people’s hundreds of friends also have hundreds of friends themselves.

So, given all that, isn’t it a little hypocritical to complain about the way Target collects and uses personal data about individual shoppers’ purchases? In my view, the only line that they might have overstepped is not giving customers more disclosure that by shopping at Target, the company reserves the right to track the data that they volunteer. Discount cards and internet hotspots have this buried in the fine print that people generally skip over when they sign up, but there’s no notice on the door when you walk into Target. I’m sure that Target isn’t the only retailer that does this, either. They’re just the only one that got caught at it.


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Violating my toddler’s privacy

Twenty years from now, my son will be an adult, forming relationships and seeking career opportunities.  My choices today and in the next several years might have an impact on how that goes.  I’m not referring to the old breast vs. bottle debates, or which school we eventually send him to, or how long we keep him rear-facing in his car seat.  I’m talking about how much of his personal information I share online.

When I was growing up, there were no social media websites.  No one had a blog back then; if you were really good at writing you might get an op-ed column in a newspaper or magazine after you demonstrated that you had the chops for it.  Finding out people’s information involved actually talking to them.  (Gracious me, I sound so curmudgeonly.)  Today, teens and adults voluntarily put that data out there for public consumption.  Gone, apparently, is the fear that an Orwellian government will track our every thought and move, because now we voluntarily broadcast those thoughts and movements, offering them up for anyone to monitor, archive and analyze.  Sharing photos has become second nature–just snap a picture with your phone and send it off to Facebook with the click of a button!  Web services like FourSquare let others know where you are, right this second!  Something on your mind?  Tweet it to the world!  Too ponderous to fit in 140 characters?  Sign up right here.

Those of us who opt to do this for ourselves are implicitly agreeing to deal with any fallout that comes from sharing (and sometimes, oversharing) our personal data.  But for my 1-year-old son and his classmates, there’s no opting in.  Some of their personally identifiable information is already being shared with the world–by us, their parents, the very people whose job it is to protect these kids.  We think little of mentioning where and when they were born, or physical characteristics like hair color, eye color, or scars.  We detail their health history when asking advice from online message boards.  More than that, though, are the photos.  Lots and lots of adorable baby and toddler photos, followed a few years later by back-to-school photos, Halloween photos, family vacation photos, graduation photos, et cetera.  Whether our kids like it or not, we’ve been putting information about them out there since (or even before) they were born.

Kiddo at the zooI spent a lot of time mulling over whether to publish photos on this blog.  In the end, as you can see, I decided in favor of it.  But I still wonder whether I’m doing my son a disservice.  I wonder whether I’m taking away his future option to control which information about him is publicly available.  But I also wonder, will he even care?  By the time our little Kiddo is old enough to understand that he’s a searchable term, it might be something we as a society have just come to accept, that all our day-to-day activities are going to get publicly surfaced one way or another, by us ourselves or by others with whom we interact.  I can’t even conceive of how the concept of Privacy will have changed twenty years from now.  Perhaps our son’s college exploits documented by his buddies won’t interfere with his getting a job, because everyone shares this information with everyone else.  Maybe it won’t be embarrassing that Kiddo’s new date can find his baby photos, because he’s already seen theirs too.

Meanwhile, in the here and now, my husband and I have the onus of deciding how much about our child(ren) to make public.  At first, I restricted my photo sharing to password-protected sites like Facebook.  I soon found that calling this option “privacy” is misleading, because all someone needs to do to get around it is copy the picture to their own computer.  Avoiding the web altogether and simply emailing the images is no sure thing either.  Last fall we forwarded a cute photo from Kiddo’s daycare teacher to a couple family members.  Next thing we knew, it was up on Facebook!  Once that picture or tweet or status update gets out of your direct control, you might as well consider it public property, because it’s just so darn easy for the people with whom you share it to pass it along further.

Is there a solution?  I’m not sure.  Even if we restricted ourselves to snail-mailing actual photographs, that still wouldn’t prevent someone from scanning them and uploading the images for their own digital collection.  We have to either choose to live unconnected to the social web, or accept that by sharing pictures and commentary, we’re releasing a snapshot of our lives to the public domain.

Let me be clear: I think social media is a great thing.  It allows us to have regular contact with far-away family members, and it facilitates virtual communities where we can connect with others like us.  Just like face-to-face friendships, we chat about our families and swap pictures and advice.  But somewhat ironically, the conversations we carry on in real life circles often are less permanent than those in the virtual world.  It’s each person’s personal business how much or how little they put out there about themselves.  As parents of children too young to decide for themselves, we need to be custodians of their personal information as well as our own.  Where’s the line?