Sarah Kendzior offers thoughtful consideration of privacy issues raised in recent weeks surrounding Facebook and US CIA director David Petraeus in todays edition of Al Jazeera. Excerpted below are the opening paragraphs of her essay entitled “Why e-mail is and must remain private.”
“When I was a child, my grandfather offered me some advice: “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to read about in the newspaper”. To my nine-year-old self, this advice seemed strange, almost flattering. What could I possibly do that would be worthy of public interest? Why would anyone care?
“Decades later, this advice still seems strange, but not for the reasons my grandfather envisioned. The internet has made us all the media, able to broadcast the indiscretions of ourselves and others with ease. What seemed horrifying to him – transgressions exposed to an audience of thousands, maybe even tens of thousands – now seems like a comparatively good deal. How quaint to experience personal humiliation on a local level, endured for a day instead of preserved for eternity.
“The aftermath of the Petraeus scandal, in which the CIA director’s emails to his mistress biographer were considered grounds for his resignation, has sparked debate on whether email should be considered private communication. “I assume that every single email is something that will be in the public domain,” investor Peter Thiel, a board member of Facebook, proclaimed at a panel discussion on social media and politics hosted by The New Republic last week. He edits his emails meticulously, in anticipation of their inevitable reveal.
“Corporations like Facebook and Google have long abandoned privacy as a tenable goal. Their CEOs tend to echo the moralising platitudes grandfathers use to keep their grandchildren in line. “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” former Google CEO Eric Schmidt told CNBC in 2009.
“In 2011, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously declared that the erosion of privacy was “a social norm… that has evolved over time”. Social media companies’ constant shifts in privacy settings, always in the direction of increased openness, have led users to anticipate surveillance and intrusion, euphemistically branded as “sharing”.
“On social media networks, we have come to expect that what is private one day may be public the next, and that what we erased years ago may suddenly reappear in an archive. But this expectation did not hold, until recently, for email. Most people assume that the audience of their email is the person with whom they are emailing, and that once you delete the email, it is gone.
“Security experts decry this viewpoint as hopelessly naïve. “Don’t put anything in an email that you wouldn’t send to your mother,” says cyber security expert Jeff Ahlerich, in a manner yet again reminiscent of an elder scolding a child.
“But we are not children. We are adults who cannot possibly maintain the energy or fortitude to police our every online interaction. That doing so is viewed as common sense raises basic questions of how we want to live our lives. We should not be asking how to police our emails, but what it means that we expect our emails to be policed – and what this expectation does to our ability to interact, express ourselves and change.”