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Privacy in Public Spaces

I recently began reading danah boyd’s book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, and it has me thinking about privacy.

I’ve written before about security and the illusion of security. Many internet users who do not have a background in online security feel more secure when the illusion of security exists than when following actual steps to ensure security. Privacy can be similarly difficult to navigate, for the same reason: the illusion of privacy online is not the same as actually being private.

Privacy in public spaces

9179097381_389cf090b4_bIn her book, danah boyd explains the difference between public spaces and being public. Public spaces are places like malls, parks, and (online) social media and social networking sites. However, we can often spend time in a public space without being public. In other words, we have conversations in the mall without assuming that our conversation will be broadcast over a loudspeaker.  There’s an assumption that no one is listening to or recording our conversations in a park.

There’s no law that dictates that we don’t stare at people sitting across from us at the subway or join in on conversations between strangers on the street. It’s merely social etiquette. These are public spaces, but we still maintain our privacy.

What is privacy ?

boyd references Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s description of privacy as “the right to be left alone.” We all seek our privacy, in private spaces such as our homes, and in public spaces where we whisper, or merely assume others aren’t listening in. But the issue gets mildly more complicated when we look at how power impacts privacy.

For example, some parents believe they have a right, or even an obligation, to infiltrate their children’s privacy. This used to mean reading diaries or looking through books and papers. When I was a kid it meant some parents listened in on our phone conversations, or eavesdropped on sleepover conversations. Today it is extended to reading “private” emails and monitoring Facebook conversations.

Similarly, from a power standpoint, the government puts laws in place that regulate privacy, whether through phone taps or warrant-less searches. One of the most well known examples of this is the Patriot Act. The argument both parents and the government use in these cases is often the same: if you have nothing to hide, you shouldn’t mind.

But this argument assumes the privacy is the same as secrecy. Secrecy is the attempt to hide something. Privacy, in Justice Brandeis’s words, is the right to be left alone. It is innate, expected, and closely guarded at every tier and in every living situation.

When Los Angeles officials began confiscating tiny houses, a homeless man named Willie Hadnot was quoted as saying “I could shut the door, go lay down, quiet. And that’s what I miss a whole lot, man. I don’t want to start crying.” He was missing his privacy.

In Cory Doctorow’s novel Little Brother, Marcus explains the concept similarly.

“There’s something really liberating about having some corner of  your life that’s yours, that no one gets to see except you. It’s a little like nudity or taking a dump. Everyone gets naked every once in a while. Everyone has to squat on the toilet. There’s nothing shameful, deviant or weird about either of them. But what if I decreed that from now on, every time you went to evacuate some solid waste, you’d have to do it in a glass room perched in the middle of Times Square, and you’d be buck naked?”

Online privacy

Even if all levels of power could agree that privacy is a right, the internet complicates the notion of privacy in a public space.

Online, we make similar assumptions to those we make IRL: we assume that our conversations are private. We assume others won’t stare, won’t pry, or won’t listen in. But privacy settings often default to “all,” and as a result our assumptions are wrong. Boyd says that this is due to four elements specific to online interactions:

  • Persistence: information stays available online forever, where memories often fade quickly
  • Visibility: many, many people can see any conversation
  • Spreadability: it’s easier to copy and paste a conversation than it is to accurately repeat gossip
  • Searchability: if someone wants to find an old conversation, they can pull it up

If I have a private conversation in the kitchen of my office, even if someone overhears it they won’t remember it perfectly, their repetition of it will be incomplete, and weeks later no one will be able to recreate the exact information I shared. If I have that same private conversation on my colleague’s Facebook wall, my 371 Facebook friends can “overhear” it, they can copy the exact words and paste them to share with others, and weeks from now anyone can search for the conversation and find it again, exactly the way it was in the initial conversation.

While this is delightful when trying to prove a point or win a bet, it complicates our relationships, our ability to gather new information and change our opinions, and most of all, to preserve our sense of privacy.

Designing for privacy

Does that mean Facebook (for example) should change their privacy settings? Or do we need better tutorials to educate ourselves on what privacy means? Or does privacy simply not exist online? Or should we shift our cultural beliefs about the right to privacy? Perhaps all of the above, perhaps none.

I believe knowledge is power. We are responsible for how our designs impact the world. So here’s what we can do:

  1. Research scenarios where privacy is a factor. Mike Monteiro’s 2013 award winning talk How Designer’s Detroyed the World has some great examples. Get the Cliff’s Notes version via my writeup of the talk, with the video embedded. I can’t recommend it enough.
  2. Pay attention to the stress cases. Sara Wachter-Boettcher and Eric Meyer recently published Design for Real Life, in which they talk about the opposite of designing for delight. We don’t live in a world of constant delight, and we need to design for our real-world, stressed, uncertain users. UX Booth also published a great article by them explaining the concept.
  3. Acknowledge bias. No one likes to admit it, but we are all biased. We’re not horrible people, but we are ignorant of how little we know. I’ve written more about how to combat it, because it’s a real problem, and it won’t go away without time and attention.

We rarely remember how different our online interactions are from seemingly similar offline situations. As designers and content strategists, this is our job. We can preserve privacy without endangering national security or the lives of our children. We can create experiences that provide our users with the respect they deserve as human beings, the privacy that is their right, and the tools to navigate the online realm.

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a passion for the user experience. Her work spans websites, web applications, and mobile. Marli is the director of content strategy at the UX agency Mad*Pow, and she serves as managing editor at UX Booth, a publication about all areas of user experience. Marli is a frequent conference speaker, and has spoken at conferences including Content Strategy Forum and LavaCon. She can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on content strategy, literature, and Muppets.

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