Privacy Advisor

An Interview with An Expert on Digital Privacy from an Anthropology Perspective

December 1, 2006
A Q&A discussion providing an interesting perspective on the very roots of privacy

Featuring: Lauren Steinfeld, as moderator, Chief Privacy Officer with the University of Pennsylvania and IAPP board member, and Douglas Raybeck, Professor of Anthropology from Hamilton College. Professor Raybeck has carried out extensive fieldwork in West Malaysia and published four books, more than 50 professional papers and given twice that number of conference papers. He is the past president of the Society for Cross Cultural Research. His latest work, "Looking Down the Road - A Systems Approach to Future Studies," is a result of his growing interest in future studies and in the development of 'what if' scenarios.

Lauren: Looking back over the centuries, have people always been interested in privacy and how have they achieved it?

Professor Raybeck: There is now increasing evidence that people have been interested in privacy since before there were people. We have discovered that high primates, particularly bonobo chimpanzees, would hide such things as relationships, food and material possessions from one another in an attempt to keep things private.

Lauren: Can you discuss the evolution of people's concerns about privacy? What do you think has changed in terms of those concerns? Where we are now and where we are going?

Professor: Initially, 3 million years ago, we ran around in hunting and gathering groups of 30-40 strong. In groups like that, privacy meant the ability to withdraw from interaction and hide what you were doing. It seldom involved much in the way of material goods, but could have involved behavioral problems. That changed as we moved to the Neolithic age where the size of communities grew significantly as the population continued to grow and we became stable agriculturists.

Large, social aggregates have a very different social dynamic. No longer did we know every member of the group well but rather knew significant numbers well, with the resulting need to withdraw within our own structures. The obvious concern over trusting those with whom we shared sensitive information required residential stability and prolonged interaction. People who depend and trust one another are ultimately bound by a series of rather strong bonds. Someone who breaks those bonds or violates that trust finds themselves at a significant disadvantage. Privacy in those days was something not only for the individual but in some ways for networks.

Lauren:
What do you think has changed over time?

Professor: Our communities now are largely imagined. By this I mean that if you live in Philadelphia, you can call yourself a Philadelphian but that doesn't mean you are familiar with most of the people in Philadelphia. It now means that in addition to having an imagined community, we generate our information either electronically or through the media - and gain what one might consider to be two-dimensional representations of what is going on. We also find that as the systems become increasingly complex, our ability to understand the system in which we participate is growing less and less and that is very worrisome. That scares a lot of people, including intelligent, well-educated people who simply do not have a great deal of expertise with technology, actually the great majority of us. We, therefore, participate in systems that we neither control nor understand.

Lauren: Regardless of electronic communications, it sounds as if the way society has evolved is that we have fewer people we can trust - and that has perhaps contributed to people ranking privacy as among one of the biggest problems we face.

Professor:
I think that is the case. People are also finding that the system is requiring them to participate in activities such as banking, buying and selling, etc., that normally would have been handled face to face with control as to what went on. If someone overheard your conversation, you knew you could do something about it, like closing the door. Now when you are banking, you know your information is out there in the ether, but you do not have a good sense as to how to guard or protect it, making it a source of unease for many people. It's not simply that you don't understand the system, it is that the system is carrying information of greater and greater importance (health, economic, lifestyle information) and they are not entirely sure where it is going and who is gaining access to it.

Lauren: Do you think that comes from just the emergence of electronic communications as the dominant medium for transferring information or from changing social dynamics?

Professor: Yes, I think the two probably reinforce each other. We have pulled back from social aggregates; we are more socially isolated domestically than we used to be and that makes it much easier to rely upon the convenience of electronic communications. Time is our most precious commodity.

Lauren:
You talk about the dilution of the sense of community. What we are seeing online is the emergence of new communities, for example, the social networking sites of Facebook and MySpace. What do you think the development of these types of communities will do to our sense of privacy and engagement?

Professor:
I am not at all surprised to see these communities arising and, in fact, I anticipated they would and wrote a paper on this some time ago. They are meeting a need we can't readily realize socially, a need to get together with like-minded people to exchange ideas and communicate. However, these are poor substitutes.

The privacy issue that arises is curiously different from those we encounter in face-to-face groups. In groups such as Facebook (of which I confess to being a member in order to monitor what my students are up to, in addition to having been invited by Facebook to join.) Your ability to control your presentation of self is much greater than it is in the offline social community. The privacy issue there is somewhat less than the issue of reality: is this person who he or she seems to be?

Lauren: Ultimately you have more control over what information you are putting out there, but you may not have as much control over who is actually examining that information.

Professor: Exactly, and in some instances people can go behind the scenes, even pay $40-50 for a complete background check on someone…all without that person's knowledge.

Lauren: What is your advice for moving forward productively for individuals and also corporations, government, large institutions, other holders of data?

Professor: In the case of individuals, the situation is somewhat blurrier than for corporations. Individuals have to treat the issue of privacy and trust as you would in the social world. What I am suggesting for individuals dealing with others online is that they approach it tentatively, gradually and with the goal of developing trust over time. That doesn't tend to be the way we like to work; in fact, we like to get things done quickly. Therein lies the risk and that is our own fault.

Lauren: Right, so instead of "word of mouth," we have "clicks of mouse." It is essentially the word of mouth phenomenon online.

Professor: Yes, precisely. That is what I meant by gradual, somewhat blurry situations with individuals. Unless corporations or mail management systems can provide really good security, then we are just going to have to be careful about what we put out there.

Lauren:
Is that the advice for the big organizations holding data to really focus on security?

Professor: Yes, absolutely. If we turn to the corporations, it would include three strong recommendations: One: rephrase your rules and regulations into English and keep them short and clear. Suggestion 2: do everything to secure a robust security system and keep it that way. Suggestion 3: there should essentially be a time limit on information that is stored, that is be stored for a period of time and disappear. We now have a system that continues to load information into the ether and even years later the information is still there although it is no longer accurate.

Lauren: What we see with electronic communications is that it is so inexpensive to collect and retain large volumes of information and there is little economic incentive to limit what you collect and retain. For people who are not thinking about the privacy issues, that means that lots of data just stays around.

Professor:
Precisely, and that is the problem for it can be mined by others for their purposes.

Lauren: Are there any additional thoughts you want to relate about privacy from an anthropology perspective?

Professor: The big thing we have going for us, and everyone who is not a famous movie star or noted politician should remember this: we are protected largely by our anonymity. There are 300 million of us!


This interview is available in its entirety as a podcast on the IAPP's Web site, under Resources.