Online Privacy Attitudes - Not What You Think...

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday, 25 December 2012 |

Since I started posting articles on these blogs I’ve learned a lot about the way people think. That may seem unlikely, given that I don’t enable the comments function or in any way solicit feedback from readers. But as I suspect is the case with most bloggers, I pay great attention to the visitor statistics. This gives me a real insight into what people care about, and what they don’t. And the information I get is not clouded by politeness or the distorting factors of social interaction. People's views and preferences are evident in the hits per post, the articles visitors link to, etc. But as I’ve mentioned here before, a particularly important aspect of a blog/site's statistical info is its popular search terms – the things people are typing into Google, in order to find their way to the site.

It’s the popular search terms which have led me to what I think is quite a fascinating conclusion. It’s generally believed around the Web that people don’t care about their privacy. That’s always baffled me, but I’ve come to accept it. In fact, one of my most frequented posts of this year is privacy related. But looking at the popular search terms which have led Web surfers to that article, it’s clear that the vast, vast bulk of visitors are not people who are interested in protecting themselves against privacy breaches. They're actually people who are interested in breaching the privacy of others. Yes, you read that right. Far, far more people are interested in finding out how to access information they shouldn’t be accessing, than finding out how to keep their information safe. You write an article to warn people their info is not particularly secure, and it gets overrun with hits from the very people you're trying to protect them against!

At a rough guess I’d say that on the evidence of those popular search terms relating to the article in question, the would-be privacy invaders outnumber those who care about protecting their privacy by about 500 to 1. That shocks me. And it doesn’t take a genius to deduce from this that statistically, those who want to get their hands on other people’s information, are going to be a much more potent, knowledgeable and motivated force on the Internet than those who actually care about protecting themselves.

Not only is this worrying, but it also seems to confirm the notion that very few people care about protecting information they wouldn’t want just anyone to read. There has, however, been a major contradiction to that notion. Because another well-visited article I posted has attracted quite a number of people who clearly do care about their privacy. But here’s the interesting part… The people who do care about protecting their privacy, almost invariably, are aiming to protect their information not from everyone they don’t know, but from one specific individual.

When I first began to notice this I thought it might just be circumstantial. Something about the way I’d written the posts, and the wording people use when they use a search engine. But it’s not. The more I’ve looked into this in other areas of the Web, the more clear cut it’s become. As a trend, it appears people are massively bothered about ensuring that, say, the next door neighbour doesn’t find out what they’ve been doing. But as soon as you remove the next door neighbour (or any other specific person) from the equation, the privacy focus evaporates and they no longer care.

As an example from elsewhere on the Web, I often read the WordPress forum, and very frequently they get enquiries from bloggers who have attracted a specific follower they want to block. They've seen the follower in their list, checked the person out, and thought to themselves: "OMG! This person looks like a right seedy little creep! I do not want him reading my blog!" Of course, it's then invariably explained by the support volunteers that actually, ANYONE can read a blog, whether or not they're following it. If someone's taken an interest, the only way you'll stop them looking at the blog is to take the site out of the public domain altogether. But this is precisely what I'm getting at. People are happy to publicise anything when they've no idea who's reading it. But as soon as they catch a real glimpse of the kind of unsavoury character who might be watching them, PRIVACY MATTERS!

So, at root, the lack of concern about online privacy does not mean that people are comfortable with anyone and everyone getting hold of their info. It means they’re not visualising the full range of individuals who can access what they post, and the negative ways in which that information can be used.

Sadly, this is very unlikely to change. There’s an overwhelming moral case for raising privacy awareness across the Internet, but any such campaign would be commercially disasterous to so many big Web players. The major forces on today’s Internet don’t want people to care about privacy. They want everyone to front up as much data as is humanly possible. Real names, and real lives – because that’s where the money is.

But be in no doubt, if you make your real life publicly accessible on the Internet (and that includes using supposedly restricted options on social networking sites or forums), you’re playing with fire. I know that’s true, because in the course of the past month alone I’ve seen no fewer than three shocking privacy abuses unfold – two of which have been fully admitted by the perpetrators. All very low profile cases, and none of them yet on the radar of the media, but that’s the whole point. Companies mismanaging people’s private data, individuals stealing Facebook photos and using them to con other Web users… It’s all so common that society has become desensitised to it.

So don’t let the big guns tell you that it’s in your interests to make your life public and/or give them more data than they need. It’s not. It’s in their interests. The Internet is such that you can’t separate a private life from a public life as you can in the offline world. Offline, when you leave work, you can physically distance yourself from the boss, and that makes it impossible for him/her to see what you’re doing, or hear what you’re saying. But online, there’s no physical distance, and only a set of very flimsy (and often misunderstood) virtual barriers stand between you saying your boss is an idiot, and him/her finding out. The only way you can maintain reliable privacy as an active Web user, is to adopt an alias. Full stop.

People DO care about online privacy. Most of them just don't realise it until it's too late.

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