Opinions, Column

Our Battle Over Privacy

The other evening I was innocently browsing the Gap website in search of a new pair of pants. My long online-shopping drought was broken when I finally found them—maroon boyfriend-fit cords, on sale. But, being a believer in a few mom-and-pop financial strategies, I decided to sleep on the purchase and wait to make it in the rational light of day. I navigated away from the page to search something or another on Google. As the results came up, I looked to the far side of my screen and was surprised—my maroon boyfriend-fit cords had followed me. The Gap advertisement popped up almost as if Google knew I had been contemplating the purchase…. Surprised but not unnerved, I made my way to Facebook. When I arrived at my timeline, I glanced once more to the side—the pants had followed me there, too! The Internet was conspiring to break my will and was stalking me to do it.

By now, those of us who are frequent flyers between retail websites, social media, and search engines have all surely been trailed by advertisements for the companies and brand names we engage online. It all seems innocuous enough—no one is forcing us to do anything—but it illuminates the fact that we are predictable beings whose virtual comings and goings are no longer protected by privacy.

The issues of the privacy we want, the privacy we want to forfeit, and the privacy we cannot choose to forfeit have become major topics in the discourses of the media and the international political scene. Since its ruling in May, the EU has labored to unpack all of the meanings of the “Right to Be Forgotten,” or the right, under certain conditions, to compel a search engine to remove links with personal information. The debate in that arena pits the right to be forgotten against other longstanding rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

This discussion came to Boston College earlier in the semester when the 2014 Academic Convocation speaker, American novelist Dave Eggers, spoke on his book, The Circle. I have not had a chance to read it, but Eggers’ remarks and a few online searches (this time I was stalked by tickets to BC sporting events) confirmed that the book is about a parallel American society run (terrorized) by a Googlesque conglomerate gone wrong. The protagonist eventually espouses the view “Privacy is theft.”

Without belaboring the point, there is a lot of ironically well-publicized anxiety about the future of an individual’s private space in this increasingly connected world. But, how does this issue manifest itself on our campus? I stumbled across an interesting opinion piece in The New York Times, “We Want Privacy but Can’t Stop Sharing.” The author considers the personal, psychological importance of privacy in light of the decrease in people who know how to wield it appropriately. Several quoted researchers reported privacy to be an important ingredient of a healthy mind and balanced self-image, but online over-sharing has become the norm in social media-driven communities. Between a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat account, one could easily reconstruct the thoughts, emotions, and locations of the average iPhone-wielding undergrad (and that’s without consideration of the GPS in each device).

The most interesting thread of this particular op-ed was an underdeveloped comment on the relationship between privacy and status. The author writes,

“The history of privacy (loosely defined as freedom from being observed) is one of status. Those who are institutionalized for criminal behavior or ill health, children and the impoverished have less privacy than those who are upstanding, healthy, mature and wealthy. Think of crowded tenements versus mansions behind high hedges.”

She is right to say that the history of privacy has verified this correlation of more seclusion to wealth and status, but today—and on college campuses in particular—that relationship has changed.

As a crowd whose tastes are often quantified by “likes,” “shares,” and “retweets,” we have turned the traditional relationship between privacy and status on its head. Now, when we share some intimate detail about our life—a change in relationship status, a death in the family, a new job, a particularly rough day, or a funny interaction—it comes as part of a tightly-managed personal marketing plan that is based on a calculation of what information we should divulge in order to achieve the best status boost among friends and peers. Of course, such a reptilian mindset doesn’t explain all of our shares. I, for one, believe that others will get as much joy from pictures of my adorable kitten, Charlie, as I do. Believe me when I say that I would include a few photos in this column if I could. In the grand scheme of social media, though, we play the highlight reel.

Undergraduates do covet privacy when it comes to one aspect of life—the photos and comments that get us street cred among peers, but endanger our chances of landing jobs. In this respect, we want to have our cake and eat it, too … or, more accurately, we want to post our photos and be employed. If not photos, we want to air our grievances, give life to our off-color thoughts, or simply get something off our chests. This is the point at which privacy and the impulse to share converge. But, the undergraduate is a clever being, and collectively, we have found the solution in the age-old tactic of anonymity.

Don’t you hate it when they say, “To be continued.”

Featured Image by Jordan Pentaleri / Heights Editor

October 9, 2014