When I was about the right age to first think that taking compromising photos of myself might be good for a lark, technology was a little different. Mobile phones that weren’t actually bricks anymore could show maybe two lines of pixelated text on an unpleasantly glowing background, terrible quality digital cameras were barely affordable, and connecting to the internet actually had a sound – kind of like KSShhh-aaa-KWEO-pung-pung-drhdrhdrhd-KHH, but it went for longer than that. Or maybe it was: mobile phones only existed in gangster movies where they were installed as part of a car, digital cameras didn’t exist, and I only had access to a few local BBSes. I forget the specifics, but that’s not the point – the point is that when I was in my teens, technology was shit, and nobody had any of it. Now, technology is excellent, everybody has all of it, it’s really easy to use, and the ways in which we interact with our technology shape the ways we expect our technology to work.
If I write an email to someone, I’m thinking “I will type my message in this box here, hit SEND, and then they will receive the message and read it”. I am not thinking “I will type my message in here, hit SEND, then it will be transmitted in plain text across a vast network of computer systems, through a number of mail servers, possibly be recorded by several government agencies in case I’m a terrorist, be stored for a little while in a mail spool and possibly backed up by some ISP, before eventually being downloaded and read by the intended recipient”.
Same with photos: “I will take a picture and share it with my wife” is a distinctly personal experience (regardless of what it’s a photo of), and that’s what I’m thinking at the time. I am not thinking “I will take a picture with my phone which will then be uploaded across that same vast network to a cloud system somewhere and stored for Eris-only-knows how long in some other jurisdiction which can probably be hacked by script kiddies”.
Technology now is all about communicating with people, and about sharing our experiences, and that we can do this without having any idea what’s actually going on is fantastic. The price though is that with each service we use, we give up a certain amount of privacy, and what privacy we give up is not necessarily obvious.
To go back to the compromising photo example: When all I had was a little film camera, nobody I knew ever took photos they wouldn’t be happy for random strangers to see, because we all knew that we had to take the film to get processed – the mechanics of how the technology worked were at least somewhat obvious to the people using the technology. As far as I am aware, there are no nude photos in existence of my teenage self and partners, because we didn’t want those perverts in the photo shop to see them.
I want a world where user experience accurately reflects potential privacy – not “sharing to circles”, or allegedly private “private messages”, but where any share that could conceivably result in non-private communication is preceded by a dialog that states “I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record”. Because privacy is important – as Bruce Schneier said: “Privacy is not about something to hide. Privacy is about human dignity. Privacy is about individuality. Privacy is about being able to decide when and how we show ourselves to other people.”