Privacy or piracy

door Arne Keuning op

Privacy or piracy

Privacy is dead and I am afraid we are all to busy to attend the funeral. And face it, we don’t love her as much as we used to.

It is amazing how much information can be found on all of us. So much that it amazes me when I can not find digital traces of a person on the Internet. Recently I talked to a job applicant at Telematica Insituut. One of the things I always do before the interview is Google the person. Sometimes quite interesting information pops up that you can use in the interview. In general I feel this is good. It gives me much more insight in what a person really has done. When I googled this person, to my surprise, no info at all came up. It surprised me so much that during the Interview I made it a subject to talk about (after all, we did make him an offer…).

But there is also a down side to this. I am member of a committee guiding the research on privacy by the Rathenau instituut, an institute that does research on politically sensitive subjects in order to inform parliament and other politicians. During on of the discussions we had on a report that is recently published (you can find it here) somebody gave an example that made me think:

Suppose you are female. And you are three months pregnant. And you are looking for a job.

As as society we have arranged that a future employer is not allowed to ask if you are pregnant. Because this would put women in a disadvantaged position. After all, men can’t get pregnant. This is a delicate issue: the future employer, especially if it is a small company, can be seriously harmed this way. But as a society we feel that this solution is the best possible.

Next comes our wonderful world of social software. Buying and selling things (baby stuff), discussion on all kinds of fora (what to do when you are three months pregnant) and of course blogging (how happy you are). The more important these kind of fora are for us, the more chance there is that digital traces can be found. And that may Not Always Be A Good Thing. Of course, people can use other names but the more important these Internet based social structures are for our lives, the less room there will be for fake names (remember reputation?).

On the one hand I think that we will have to accept that the nature and importance of privacy has changed. More and more we will have to look in our digital mirror to see how the other people see us through the digital domain. I think many people already sometimes type in their own name in Google to see how the world sees us. I do! On the other hand we have to realize that, because of the different mechanisms on the Internet, we have to develop other measures to protect people in situations we have agreed to protect.

I do not believe in a ban on googling an applicant. Employers will do this anyhow and will take the information they have found in consideration. Making some sites not searchable is also not the answer since this would make them worthless. I do not have the answer but I do know that we, as people working on social software, will have to develop the answers in the coming years.

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