Is Privacy Even a Thing Anymore?

Virginia Theological Seminary last week hosted an e-formation event: a chance for people to gain skills, or grow the ones they already have, in using digital technologies and social networking  for the ministry of Christian formation. It’s an important topic and skill-set.  Our seminary faculty attended some of the e-formation workshops Friday morning. As a faculty, we spend a lot of time thinking and talking together about technology and teaching. Some of us embrace these technologies  relatively seamlessly, while for others it is more of a struggle. I probably fall somewhere in the middle of those two options: I am not a digital native, but I really enjoy what these technologies bring to teaching and learning, communication, and connections with people. Still,  I learned to type on a manual typewriter, and excitedly received a portable electric typewriter as a high school graduation present that took me through college and two graduate degrees. Like an immigrant to a new country and culture, I make my way into the land of new technologies and social media with a strange combination of clumsiness and excitement.

I notice that privacy is one of the major stumbling blocks for many of us digital immigrants affecting our overall comfort level  in using social networking platforms like  Facebook, Twitter, or even blogging. This does not appear to be as much of an issue for people born with their fingers on a keyboard. What accounts for the difference? Perhaps it has to do with how technologies shape cultural frameworks and personhood itself in relation to boundaries around information flow. Put differently, the existence of these media forms brings a changed expectation about privacy, into which people live. Those who have never lived with a different expectation do not experience the dis-ease that  I and others feel upon creating a Second Self in the virtual world.

For those concerned about privacy, and for those who don’t even think of it as a thing to worry about anymore, law professor Lori Andrews’ book I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy (2012) offers a good read. Andrews appreciates the many benefits of social networking. But she also cautions that data aggregation by companies (who gather data on us every time we put a search term into a web browser or click on a link) construct a second self for us and without our permission–one that is inevitably a distortion of identity. For example, suppose I search the term “seasonal affective disorder” as part of my academic research on types of depression. In the virtual world, this becomes part of my “identity”  in an un-nuanced way: the data aggregators cannot discern, nor do they care, whether I myself suffer from depression, or am simply a curious seeker of information about the phenomena. Andrews notes that people are already being discriminated against in employment and school contexts on the basis of such associations, calling it the new from of “redlining” for the 21st century. We may not realize, she says, “the extent to which [our] offline self is being overshadowed by [our] digital doppelgänger” ( p. 13). Andrews argues that we need a Social Network Constitution to protect persons’ rights to shape their own virtual selves, rather than having that done by third party commercial interested that create of us  extremely narrow and distorted on-line selves. So is privacy even a thing anymore?