On the nature of privacy…

From an article that appeared in the San Francisco Gate this passed weekend:

Gira, a.k.a. m. Shakti, was one of the first “Web cam girls” who, using a real-time camera, intentionally exposed the details of her life online 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“I shared secrets there I wouldn’t share with anyone else,” Gira said. “Things I said only to therapists, best friends.”

Yet when the 28-year-old San Francisco resident learned last week, along with millions of Americans, that the National Security Agency had collected the telephone records of unsuspecting citizens, it crossed Gira’s privacy line.

Although atypical in her choices of hobby and profession, Gira is typical of many in her generation when it comes to privacy concerns. On the one hand, she and millions of citizens under 30 are actively engaging in online exhibitionism without fear of consequences. On the other hand, they seem more concerned than their parents about government eavesdropping in the name of U.S. security.

“That’s a thin line between civil liberties and physical and national security that our government has crossed,” Vissanjy said. “Our generation is open with things such as MySpace and Facebook and these other networks, so it seems like they’re OK with the public knowing what you’re doing — but there are some things that the government should not intrude on, such as private calls, text messaging and e-mails.”

From a social psychology standpoint, this is a fascinating dichotomy. On the one hand, the internet generation is a bunch of exhibitionists, put their private lives right out there in the public eye for anyone to see. On the other hand, they’re more sensitive to perceived privacy violations than their parents (this has been my anecdotal experience, at least).

There’s a couple of possible reasons for this:

  • Teenagers of every generation tend to be anti-authoritarian; probably as a result of the authoritarianism imposed on them by adults. So while they have no issue sharing things with their friends, an authority figure (the NSA) listening in will bother them.
  • There’s a world of difference when you control what you put on your blog and choose what’s available to the public, vs when your private details are taken without your consent.
  • Not unlike the rest of us, we have an expectation of privacy in some circumstances that we don’t feel should be violated. Personal, private communications are just that, even if you’re not saying anything you haven’t already posted on your blog.

Personally, I find myself most aligned with the second bullet point: my private information is mine, and should only be revealed with my knowledge and consent.

Either way, I’m glad that my generation, at least, takes their privacy rights seriously enough to be upset (if not quite seriously enough to take action…). I take the apparent dichotomy as more evidence of the waves that will ripple through our society as this generation grows up and started to take positions of power.

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