“You are who you are when no one is looking.”
This text is displayed prominently in the background image of the Whisper blog, where founder Brad Brooks proclaims “the truth lives.” Whisper is a digital platform for unbounded and anonymous information sharing. According to Brooks, the use cases for his app are “sharing stories, expressing unvarnished moments, revealing honest emotions and connecting with the world around [you]” without needing to attach to it any identity or location. Depending on how and where you enter the service, however, you’ll see people using Whisper to share stranger-than-fiction sexual openness or beautiful microfictions or even attempts to find a hookup for the night.
Regardless of intended or actual use cases, there is one dangerous misunderstanding of Whisper, Secret, Facebook, Twitter, and even email: these services render upon customers user-defined privacy.
Privacy is a complex beast, one whose nature is not easily dissected. Culturally we raise hackles at the NSA reading emails or AT&T showing the government our texts because these actions feel as if they are throwing the doors to our bedrooms open. We take to Facebook or
Twitter or any number of other forums to decry invasion of our privacy.
But has our privacy been invaded?
Are we guilty of assuming there is privacy on these platforms simply because they are personal? Careful reading of the End User License Agreement for most free email platforms (think Outlook, Gmail, Yahoo Mail, etc.) signs over access to data transmitted within. Not unlimited access, usually; most companies have a keen sense of the public trust and would never publicize the embarrassing things you wrote to your SO when you were drunk.
These companies have revenue streams though, and that is usually some type of ad or media sales.
Consider Google. The company’s primary resource for consumers is search. The vast majority of their engineering efforts still go into improving search, because ad sales attached to search are their primary revenue stream. Better consumer experience in search (i.e., relevant results) equals more value to advertisers. In other words, when Google makes search better, it can charge advertisers much more for placements. Every ancillary product Google gives access to supports the function of making search better: Gmail helps Google understand how people are communicating with one another in business and personal environments. Google Maps gives insight into how people engage with geography. Google Now allows Google to understand natural-language search patterns (as opposed to boolean or keyword).
Consumers engage in a transactional relationship with Google because in exchange for information about how we talk or browse or speak or question, Google returns to us a constantly improving product line. We give up some privacy from Google in order to get better products, including advertising that is actually relevant to our needs. Our activity in the Google ecosystem is not private, and the ecosystem would not necessarily be better if it were.
Almost all activity on the Internet is subject to similar parameters. Nothing we do online is truly private, at least in the way that a face-to-face conversation in a closed room is, and consumers should recognize this and act accordingly. Distribution of information in the digital space is giving someone access to it.
However, a democratic society by definition entrusts a great deal to the structure and personnel of its government. It might be better than to stop discussing pre-emptive demands by the government for our user data as an invasion of privacy, but of a deep and abiding violation of the public trust.
As far as privacy on digital media platforms is concerned, it may be wise to exercise conservative judgement. Information, images, or conversations that require true privacy are probably still be best held behind closed doors.
On the Internet, there is no place where no one is looking.