Saturday, April 17, 2010

Privacy Noise

The press has always been eager to cover Internet privacy issues, rightly so. There are real threats to what most reasonable people would consider privacy. However, in its eagerness to find privacy angles on hot topics, the press sometimes generates privacy noise.

For example, Thursday’s USA Today (4/15/2010, Money section) had an article titled, “Library of Congress plans to archive Twitter posts.” The subtitle was, “Privacy concerns raised, but tweets offer slice of history.”

Despite the subtitle’s foreboding, the privacy angle gets a total of one paragraph, buried in the middle of the article:

The idea of archiving public tweets might be unsettling to Twitter users like Naomi Reagan, 28, a social-media marketer in San Francisco who worries others may shy away from Twitter over privacy concerns. Direct messages and tweets deemed private by their authors will not be archived, Twitter says.

Now, some context: Twitter is a global system for publicly broadcasting short messages. The default behavior is that anyone can “follow” the messages of anyone else. Public Twitter messages are already searchable on Google, Bing, and Twitter itself. The Library of Congress plans to archive those same messages. How is that a privacy concern?

Predictably, the article fails to define what the concern is. In fact, the person referenced is not concerned for her own privacy; she is concerned that, in some unstated way, other people will be concerned.

To casual readers, articles like this come across as, “Here’s another cool Internet development, but there are privacy concerns.” It’s a familiar refrain. But when everything comes with vague privacy concerns, the things that merit real privacy concerns won’t stand out.

For example, another story from this week was about the U.S. government’s request for access, without search warrants, to certain Yahoo Mail user accounts. While the government had arguments for its position, from which it backed down, major privacy issues were obviously at stake, the kind that concerned citizens should understand no matter what side of the issue they end up on.

Yet I suspect the Yahoo Mail story was, to most people, just more privacy noise. And that’s the problem.

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