February 18, 2008

Privacy = “Identity Management?” [9:42 am]

Lurching toward a meaningful framework for debate: One Friend Facebook Hasn’t Made Yet: Privacy Rights

Facebook was in the news this month for its disturbing policy of making it all but impossible for users to quit the site and erase their personal information. The issue was presented as one of privacy, which it is, but it is more precisely a matter of what the sociologist Erving Goffman called “identity management,” which takes on whole new levels on the Internet.

Goffman argued that people spend much of their lives managing their identity through “presentation of self.” Offline, people use clothing, facial expressions, and the revealing and withholding of personal information to convey to the world who they are, or who they want to be taken to be.

The physicality of the offline world provides built-in protections. When people talk to a group of friends, they can look around to see who is listening. When they buy a book or rent a video, if they pay in cash, no record is made connecting them to the transaction.

It’s more complicated online. [...]

So, a good start, right? But then we get this:

What Web sites need to do — and what the government should require them to do — is give users as much control over their identities online as they have offline. Users should be asked if they want information to be viewable by others, and by whom: Their friends? Everyone in the world? Privacy settings, which allow for this kind of screening, should be prominent, clear and easily managed. (I’m not sure I was part of the intended audience for my colleague’s college-years anecdotes.)

This paragraph shows how far we have to go in this discussion — because managing my offline identity is NOWHERE NEAR as simple as depicted in this editorial. While I might not completely disagree with the claim that we no longer have any privacy, I would agree that we have come to accept a level of intrusion without giving it much thought, because companies have been relatively careful. But identity theft is NOT a Facebook phenomenon; it derives from completely different sources.

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