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Sean Patrick Hagen

Just a Vancouver coder

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Now that Google Drive has been released, people are once again talking about privacy issues.

I’ve always been slightly mystified by the whole issue of online privacy. My default has always been “share it all”. I’ve got accounts on a bunch of social networks ( Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, Path, G+, and a few others ), and I don’t mind letting people know what I’m up to.

After doing some thinking and reading, I’ve come to realize why online privacy can be such a big deal to people.

I’m sure you’ve probably heard about companies like Facebook and Google collecting data on your online habits. From what you search for to what you buy, these companies ( and others ) have a monetary stake in predicting what you like and what you want. If a company can charge more for an ad because they know you’ll like it, they’re going to try and do it. The problem comes from companies making these sorts of data gathering schemes opt-out, as opposed to opt-in.

For example, there are a variety of people who might not want people to know what they do in their spare time. Or what they do at all. From the article “Why You Should Care About and Defend Your Privacy” on LifeHacker, they note that “[v]ictims of domestic violence, members of the LGBT community, political activists, human rights activists, police officers, even public figures all need privacy to make sure their families and homes are safe”. These people don’t want their friends ( or ex-friends, ex-lovers, ex-spouses ) to know where they are and what they’re up to. For people in these situations, privacy is protection.

I know that I’m lucky, not having to worry about protecting my privacy that way. I feel bad that there are people who have to live in such a way that they have to be careful about everything they post ( or even read ) online.

One thing I find interesting though, is the other end of the spectrum. The people who use applications like Foursquare, or the location-sharing services of Twitter, Google, and Facebook. I hear stories and see advertisements about people using these services to connect with people when they’re “oot and aboot”. I’ve started to feel like I’m missing out on a big part of the ‘social’ aspect of some of these social networks.

After reading “Living in Public: What Happens When You Throw Privacy Out the Window” on LifeHacker, I noticed something that kind of surprised me. It’s the part of location sharing that I’ve been missing out on.

This was the fact that the author ran into people he wouldn’t have otherwise because he had started sharing his location via a variety of applications. That’s never happened to me. I’ve been using Foursquare, Google Latitude, and the location-sharing features of Twitter and Facebook for a while – and I’ve never gotten a text message or phone call saying someone noticed where I was and was wondering if I wanted to meet up.

I have the feeling that this is because in my circle of friends ( at least, people I hang out with on a somewhat regular basis ), I’m one of the few that actually uses all these location-sharing features and applications. I’ve got a few people I’d consider friends that I’ve met via Twitter, Tumblr, etc – but when you haven’t already met in person, there’s a sort of barrier to messaging that person asking if you want to have lunch because you’re in the same part of town ( at least, there is for me ).

I feel like this is an issue of these services not having reached critical mass – or at least, not having reached critical mass in my group of friends. Maybe it’s my friends, maybe it’s where I live, or maybe it’s some other factor. All I know is that most of my friends don’t call me up because they see I’m nearby on Google Latitude. It’s also possible that in working from home, I’ve cut myself off from meeting more people that would use these sorts of services. Not living in downtown Vancouver probably doesn’t help, either ( side note: damn, but I really do miss living downtown ).

One thing to note though: I don’t mind sharing data about myself ( location, search history, etc, etc ) when I’m the one in control of how it’s being shared. That’s why although I’ll share my location on Google Latitude or Facebook Places, I’ve got the privacy settings configured so that only people I want to share those things with will see them. I guess the best way to put it would be that ( for example ) when I check into Google Latitude, I’m sharing my location with Google and my friends – no one else. Same for Facebook, Twitter, and other services. While I may be more permissive with what might be called my ‘private’ data, I still care about whose hands that data ends up in.