What Does Privacy Mean?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines privacy as follows:

“The state or condition of being alone, undisturbed, or free from public attention, as a matter of choice or right; seclusion; freedom from interference or intrusion.”

Privacy can also be defined as “personal information that an individual deems important and unattainable by the general population” (Timm & Duven, 2008, pg. 90).

When applied to being online, this means that there should be a choice about what public attention, interference or intrusion we experience, what information we deem safe from the general population. We can choose to share things, to publish them, make them available to others but not everything on the internet is public and we should always have a choice. There is a lot of activity online that we assume is private, which we assume does not receive public attention, interference or intrusion. We assume that when we browse different sites that we are remaining private. We assume that the things we do when logged into “private” accounts like our email or storage will be private. We assume that setting our privacy settings to keep others out will make things private. We are choosing private or public. Right?

You may not be giving a site your name, but you could be providing information. Privacy in a digital age is changing. What you do on the internet is almost always tracked by someone or, more realistically, by some company or government. It is important to know that activities may not be as anonymous as they appear. Google tracks your search history. Any time you are logged in to a Google account, your activity is being tracked and compiled. The Patriot Act and equivalent legislation in other countries means that your private information may not be private in the face of a government request. Companies that run the sites you use are privy to the activity you do on those sites.

With that in mind, there has been a shift in how some people attain privacy online. danah boyd has researched extensively with teens to look at ways of protecting what one wishes to retain as private while sharing publicly. The strategies employed are numerous. Some involve an assumption that everything is public anyway, others involve control of understanding or control of access. This understanding of privacy as something that must be actively created is one that is becoming more common in today’s digital world, as boyd (2011) points out:

“We’ve moved from a world that is ‘private-by-default, public-through-effort’ to one that is ‘public-by-default, private-with-effort.'”

We must expend more effort to keep private what we want to remain private.

This shift has impacted higher education, requiring not just greater measures to protect student and employee data but also a greater awareness of what can truly be considered private. Communication with one’s class, for example, is no longer protected by the walls of the classroom. One example is the public sharing of emails sent to a class. Another example would be videos of instructor behaviour appearing on the internet. Anything that can be recorded, screenshotted, copied, and pasted can be shared easily now.

These examples raise questions about the boundaries of privacy. What is protected (or not) by law and policy? Where does an expectation of privacy really become netiquette, the guidelines for appropriate and respectful behaviour when on the internet? While UR Courses is considered “private” in that it requires a registered username and password to access, open only to those given access by the institution, it is still to some extent a public space, shared by students and instructors. It is possible to capture that information and share it outside the framework. If anyone can see it, you need to consider it potentially public.

Beyond that, there is the possibility of intentionally being public. What can we make public that will have a positive impact? The issue of privacy is always linked with the opposite and we must always consider what we choose to have visible. It is important to think about what should be shared, what adds value to education and learning if it has an audience?

Timm, D. M., & Duven, C. J. (2008). Privacy and social networking sites. New Directions for Student Services, (124), 89-102.