Tech, Work
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Hiding In Plain Sight: Why Obscurity Matters More Than Privacy

TueNight Obscurity Privacy Amy Vernon


Is it possible for anything to be private in the Social Age?

The Information Age brought us 24-hour news sources, online forums, the Information Superhighway, Web 2.0 and more social media sites than we could even begin to remember. We were told we could now access more info than we would ever want or need. It was out there in pixels and bytes, ours for the searching. The start of this age is sort of a moving target, but was sparked by the Digital Revolution of the late 1950s to late 1970s.

Now we’ve entered into the Social Age — and since I’m sort of making that up, I’m going to peg the start to 1997-2001, with the rise of Six Degrees and Friendster. Information is still out there, but there’s gobs of it. There’s so much of it that sometimes it’s hard to tell if what we’re reading is even true. We depend heavily on our social networks — both online and off — to help us make sense of all of that information. To plow through it and pull the diamonds out of the rough.

We’re on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube…

Stop. Breathe.

So what does this have to do with privacy?

[pullquote]These days, one ill-advised tweet can not only cause someone to be fired, but can also keep a person from getting hired in the first place.[/pullquote]

It starts with obscurity, as defined by Evan Selinger and Woodrow Hartzog. Selinger, an associate professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, specializes in the philosophy of technology; Hartzog, an assistant professor at the Cumberland School of Law of Samford University, specializes in privacy, media, internet and intellectual property law. The two are internationally recognized for their writings on the subject and are cited in a paper by FTC Commissioner Julie Brill on “Privacy in the Age of Omniscience.”

“Obscurity shouldn’t be confused with anonymity or confidentiality,” Evan told me in an email. “It’s about making it hard for some people to figure out what we’re saying or even realize that we’ve said something. There’s lots of different ways to create obscurity. We can use privacy settings to restrict who can access what we post. We can speak in code so only the friends who know our insider references will grasp what we’re getting at. We can create accounts using pseudonyms. We can use platforms that only certain crowds check. There’s plenty of ways to go, as obscurity strategies ultimately allow us to speak publically while limiting who is likely (there’s never a guarantee) to be part of the conversation.”

We’ve always had these kinds of coded conversations with people, made jokes with our friends, or said inappropriate things. (Having worked in newsrooms for 20 years, believe you me, there were a LOT of things we said that we’d never have said in any other company.) But we knew who we were talking to, and even if someone found it offensive, the proof was gone because it wasn’t there for Google to index and save for the rest of our lives.

Not so anymore, when one ill-advised tweet can not only cause someone to be fired, but can also keep a person from getting hired in the first place. That concept is much of what’s behind the European Union’s Right to Be Forgotten, which rightfully recognizes that the power of Google or Bing to haunt you for the rest of your life over one stupid decision might be a bit much. Under this legal principle, which is only recognized in Europe, a person can petition to have unwanted references erased from search results.

Of course, there are a lot of troubling implications in that as well — should someone be able to erase his criminal past? In some cases, maybe. In others, probably not. (Not surprisingly, Selinger and Hartzog have dissected that issue.) But who gets to make that decision? And will those decisions be made equally and without bias across ethnicity, race, religion, gender and socioeconomic levels?

Given the history of the human race, that’s doubtful.

So back to privacy.

Those with the will and the means have always been able to find out whatever they wanted to about us, legally or illegally. When I was a reporter in suburban Phoenix in the late 1990s, I was able to track down the home address of a police officer who had been shot using a database service, the name of which I’ve long since forgotten. The company gathered public records from motor vehicle bureaus, property tax records and other government-collected data that was in the public record.

Before this time, you’d have to go down to the headquarters of whatever agency had the information, file a public records request and maybe spend hours digging through the data to find what you were looking for. Or you’d have to wait a few days for the agency to get back to you with the information you requested.

The database allowed me to find this man’s home address in about five minutes.

Now, the family was very appreciative to be able to tell their story and provide photos of the slain officer. I got a pat on the back for tracking down the info (I was the one who’d pushed the newspaper to subscribe to this service). The reporter on it got a huge scoop. Our readers were served by getting a full picture of this police officer.

But you can’t tell me that if someone with more nefarious things in mind had wanted to track down this information, he wouldn’t have been able to. The information was there for the taking, just not so simple to get to.

As we dive deeper into the social web, the chance for obscurity fades while also becoming more attainable. It’s more attainable because there is simply so much flying by us every day that it’s easy to miss things that are meant for us, never mind those shared by people we’ve never met and never will.

It fades because it’s easier and easier to find things out about people they never expected us to see.

When I was a journalist, the ability to track down information about sources far outweighed any concerns I might have had about my own privacy. As a “civilian,” I still believe information should be free (as in liberated, not necessarily always monetary value), but I recognize that if it is, we cannot control who has access to it.

I’m troubled with the idea that it’s harder for us to attain obscurity, but excited by the new opportunities available to us.

Not everything we do or say needs to be private. In fact, we don’t really want it all to be private, or else we wouldn’t share it.

The fact that platforms such as SnapChat, which is private and ephemeral, and WhatsApp, which is a private messaging app, are so incredibly popular shows that kids these days are perhaps a lot more interested in obscurity than we give them credit for.

And that’s probably a good thing.

Filed under: Tech, Work


Amy Vernon

A 20-year veteran of newspaper journalism and top female submitter of all time on the late, Amy Vernon is sought-after for advice on how to navigate the social web. Amy is an inaugural inductee of the New Jersey Social Media Hall of Fame. Amy has blogged for many sites, including VentureBeat, The Next Web, Network World, and's Parentables and has driven literally millions of page views through her work.


  1. Tinu Abayomi-Paul says

    To be obscure, one must start from the foundation. Growing up, I knew people who for various reasons, obscured part of their identity from even the government. Some of them did so on principle, believing that though it’s not a right specified in the bill of rights, that privacy is a human right.

    Others wanted to vote where they made the most difference, or go to a certain magnet school over another one. And some, though a precious few, were up to no good.

    So when the internet came along, I already had my bills going to our family home rather than where I actually lived with my then-husband. Even after we broke up, it seemed smarter not to put my real address online and I still only use my business debit or credit cards online, and still refuse to save that data in the browser, even though I’m the only one who uses my computer.

    It followed naturally then that I’d continue to be obscure, if only for items to match. I use the pronounceable nickname as my first name on everything. I have a separate wifi only cell phone for work that has a web-only number on it. It took forever for me to upload a picture of myself.

    The one time I mistakenly put my real email address in an article that went 2005’s version of viral, I changed my address.

    Anyway the point is, hiding in plain sight and being obscure is harder the more you’ve put out there about yourself, true. But it’s a better option that attempting privacy. Privacy has been gone for a while, whether we like it or not. But do you need privacy if you can’t be seen? Can we put odd hobbies on our profiles to throw the ad algorithms off? Can we block cookies or change locations, or use the Epic browser? Why not. We have the right. So why not.

    • Excellent points, Tinu.

      And as you point out, privacy’s been gone a long time. Anyone has always been allowed to request voting records and get personal information on people, including their address. Driver license data, property records – all are available freely to anyone and now sometimes online.

      But the expectation that not everyone is going to see everything you do or say is not unreasonable, though it sometimes feels as if we’ve begun to lose that, even, in certain cases.

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