Friday, June 15, 2012

The Nature of the Social Network versus Personal Privacy

I have read, heard, and viewed stories, debates, and complaints analyzing the degree of privacy in social networks. Countries at their upper levels have passed laws intended to corral the purveyors and users of social networks so that users of these networks can expect an unspecified and arbitrary level of privacy. I expect the legislation does not define a degree or level of privacy because degrees of privacy do not exist. Something is either private or it is exposed.

I do not think legislators or people in general consider the definition of privacy. It seems to float for most people as a concept somewhere between a person's desire for friends and their fear of enemies. But, we can define privacy. Privacy as a concept has hard and fast edges. Privacy is a state of being in which exposure of personal attributes is limited. Lets go a little deeper to some of the question begging and implications here.

Privacy is a state in which only a person can exist. A person's privacy is the sum of the attributes which they have unexposed. So, an attribute can be private, unexposed, or exposed, not private. If I want the color of my eyes to be private today, then I will wear sunglasses to hide them from view or exposure. But, the state of being private is either true or false. There is no half private or semi private condition in which an attribute can exist. The attribute is either private or not.

Attributes can start as exposed, such as my eye color. Or, attributes can start as private such as my intense affinity for small pewter dragon figurines. My eye color is something that anyone would be able to see so it is exposed. I have to hide my eye color to make it private. But, my figurine affinity is something that starts as hidden. I would have to deliberately expose my affinity for my affinity to no longer be private.

We now know what privacy is and of what it is composed. So, given a set of attributes, we might even be able to come up with a measurement and scale of privacy. But, we will have to get back to that at another time. What we now need to work out is the definition of a social network.

A social network is a collection of relationships connecting people. Social networks did not first exist on the internet. Social networks on the web only attempt to model real relationships people have. A social network as a concept is just that collection of relationships. A tribe with no electronics thousands of years ago would have a social network. The relationships between all the people in the tribe would exist even though the tribe was not logging on to Facebook. Social networks in software model and record our real relationships. Even if two people happen to meet on Facebook, their relationship does not end just because Facebook became a penny stock and was sold off piecemeal to the lowest bidders. Oh, wait, I am not supposed to let people know about my secret powers. See, I am supposed to keep that personal attribute private. The relationship can live on beyond the model in Facebook or even shift to another model like a more modern online social network.

We now know that a social network exists outside of the software modeling it but that an online or software based social network is one that models real relationships. If an online social network models real relationships, then I would expect that behavior correct in real relationships would also be correct in  the models mirroring real relationships, i.e. online social networks.

I would not tell my overly masculine and mouthy friend about my affinity for pewter dragon figurines. I would expect him to share that information in a derogatory way with the rest of our circle of friends. He can be quite mean at times. I also would not wear a shirt with my full name, social security number, and birthdate to the grocery store. I expect you also would not do such things. So, in normal life we would not expose information we wanted kept private that was originally private. What about things exposed which we want private. The tattoo of Smurfette on my forearm would normally dance in the sunlight as I was out and about. But, this exposed attribute of mine I will always make private by wearing a series of sweatbands up my arm. It works out nicely. Everyone thinks I am just really into working out.

Online I also would guard these items to maintain or create privacy. I would not post a picture of my Smurfette tattoo or discuss my affinity for pewter dragon figurines. Some at this point might protest that the nature of the web makes it such that I could privately indulge communication with others having the same attributes or affinities. They might say that in those cases I should still have the expectation of total privacy. I should be able to expose certain attributes to people without exposing those attributes to others. They would say that the web makes this possible and therefore social networking on the web differs from that in everyday offline life. This is not the case. The web only models everyday life in software accelerating positively the rate at which we can achieve certain social goals. If I want to find a group of people with Smurfette tattoos, I could quickly find other Smurfette fans online. But, I could also do the same thing offline. It might take me a long time, but I could do it. I risk the same exposure offline that I do online. I would have to search and talk to people about it to find others also wearing multiple sweatbands on their arms. Online the exposure would just have faster and broader implications because of the speed at which and the breadth of broadcast information can spread.

So, we can see what privacy is and what a social network is and how privacy plays in real life the same way it does online. But, the question remains—can we be private in an online social network?

In any social network you have to expose certain attributes in order to make connections. Could you imagine making a friend where you knew nothing about them? It is impossible. In the most basic of acquaintances you know some sort of identifier and you have some sort of communication from them. A face to face introduction delivers to each party in the meeting a whole host of physical attributes and at least first names. A connection or relationship in any social network between two people requires the exchange of attribute exposure. If a person joins a social network, then they have exposed attributes. It is not possible to join a social network without exposing some attributes. Joining a social network necessarily requires a reduction of a person's privacy in that network. The nature of a social network is such that users of the network have to give up some privacy.

Swimming requires you get wet. Socializing requires you expose personal attributes. In more succinct terms, the nature of a social network is antipodal to personal privacy.

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