On the Record, by Default

Bruce Schneier, in his piece: Casual Conversation, R.I.P, suggests that, as a result of the recorded nature of online interactions, the very foundation of casual conversation is beginning to change:

“Everyday conversation used to be ephemeral. Whether face-to-face or by phone, we could be reasonably sure that what we said disappeared as soon as we said it. Of course, organized crime bosses worried about phone taps and room bugs, but that was the exception. Privacy was the default assumption.”

Indeed, we do take that privacy for granted. What we said behind someone’s back wouldn’t reach them unless the person we confided in told them directly. There was nobody taking notes, nobody recording this conversation on the record. What we said was contained securely in the moment: no future action could recreate it.

Bruce Schneier, in his piece: Casual Conversation, R.I.P, suggests that, as a result of the recorded nature of online interactions, the very foundation of casual conversation is beginning to change:

“Everyday conversation used to be ephemeral. Whether face-to-face or by phone, we could be reasonably sure that what we said disappeared as soon as we said it. Of course, organized crime bosses worried about phone taps and room bugs, but that was the exception. Privacy was the default assumption.”

Indeed, we do take that privacy for granted. What we said behind someone’s back wouldn’t reach them unless the person we confided in told them directly. There was nobody taking notes, nobody recording this conversation on the record. What we said was contained securely in the moment: no future action could recreate it.

Schneier continues:

“This has changed. We now type our casual conversations. We chat in e-mail, with instant messages on our computer and SMS messages on our cellphones, and in comments on social networking Web sites like Friendster, LiveJournal and News Corp.‘s MySpace. These conversations–with friends, lovers, colleagues, fellow employees–are not ephemeral; they leave their own electronic trails.”

Now, everything we do online is not only not private in the moment, as someone could be eavesdropping in real time, but it is also saved for future scrutiny. Future scrutiny, of course, could be almost anything. Investigations, government orders, stalkers, even honest personal information research. It’s all there for the taking.

But do we act like it? Not really. For the most part we still go online without much thought as to who is recording what and what they might use it for. This worries Schneier:

“We know this intellectually, but we haven’t truly internalized it. We type on, engrossed in conversation, forgetting that we’re being recorded.”

The stories of private lives becoming public are continuing to grow. Perhaps you’ve seen the examples of solicitors caught through MySpace, the Craigslist Sex Baiting Prank, or the Mark Foley scandal. These are just three examples of private lives being exposed because of recorded conversations…and they’re just the tip of the iceberg. (obviously, these three get attention for being gross…I wonder how many people have been pleasantly surprised by what they found out in similar ways)

Schneier thinks that the answer to all of this is legislation: he wants laws put in place that safeguard personal information to protect privacy. This sounds right, but some things (those that hurt other people) should definitely not be kept private.

The tension between privacy and prosecution is always a tough issue. We want to stop those harmful things that happen (even if they happen in private), but we also want to protect the privacy of honest, good people.

I think that Schneier’s other warning will probably do more to help the situation than legislation. We need to be mindful of where and how we’re revealing information, and what the ramifications are of our conversations being recorded. Our social norms need to adapt to the point where we implicitly understand that what we do and say is on the record, by default.

Ponder this: if someone was judging you for entrance into (heaven, hell, your choice here), would you be proud of everything they could potentially find out about you?

Published: October 25th, 2006

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