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Psychology : Applied

Internet Privacy is About More than Security: it’s about psychology too

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Internet privacy probably isn’t quite the topic of concern that it probably ought to be. It strikes me that if people were really able to encounter the degree and specificity of what others may be able to know about them through their Internet use, they would be in a constant state of shock. As John Naughton points out, the way people behave may lead you to think that Internet privacy isn’t very important to them, when actually it is. It’s only that they don’t know it is until this imagined privacy is breached: then they really get it. This phenomena becomes abundantly clearly during an “experiment” I often like to run when I’m doing a talk to people in tech. It goes a little like this:


I suggest to the audience that we are going to do a live experiment. I ask them not to do anything until I have gone through all my slides and that they are clear about the instructions (you can see the slides here from the Humanise the Web Conference). In the first slide I ask participants to take out their tablets, mobile phones, or computers (at tech conferences, they are usually already in people’s laps). In the next slide I ask them to unlock their devices. Then I ask them to pass their device onto a neighbour. Finally, I ask the neighbour to take three minutes to snoop at will through the phone that they have received from the person next to them. Usually, by this point, the conference hall is abuzz with looks and murmers of terror all around. The final slides read “Please ignore the previous four steps. Breathe. Relax.” You can feel the crowd palpably relax. I then ask participants to discuss with me the feelings that emerged through the exercise.


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Most people express some sense of horror about a complete stranger having unfettered access to their device. Others, anticipating seeing someone else’s private material, either have a sense of giddy anticipation, or guilt at the idea of overstepping some kind of private line. Almost all delegates, however, “get it.” What they get is that though many of us say we are relatively comfortable sharing our most intimate details of Facebook or Twitter, or that we accept all those cookies that hover in the backgrounds of our browsers as a matter of convenience, we are not  – not at all – comfortable with a real person crossing a certain line and having access to our text messages, photographs, contact lists, emails, etc. Nor should we be comfortable with it.

For more on how vulnerable your phones may be in public spaces, see The Secret Life of Your Mobile Phone.

Privacy is a gift we give others


As I discuss in the Cybersalon video above, we use digital media, and especially social networks, as psychological extensions of our selves. We are all psychological beings, and every moment of everyday we make decisions (often these decisions are made just under the level of consciousness) about what we choose to share with others, and what we choose to keep to ourselves. Our privacy, the nature and quality of our inner lives, is uniquely special. This is why, when it comes down to the really private stuff, we may only share it with a few others.

When we bring someone into that private area of our life, it is as if we are giving that other person a precious gift. We are giving them a vulnerable part of ourselves and implicitly telling them that we trust them to hold it with respect and with care.

While we all make conscious choices about what we put on our Facebook pages or what we tweet, there are a million other things that we tap into the keyboards of our computers and the touchscreens of our phones and tablets everyday. From the Google searches you make about your private health concerns to the particular penchant you have for a certain kind of pornography, these are parts of your psychological self you’d like to keep to yourself. In fact, so long as you’re not putting someone else in any kind of harm (e.g. viewing child pornography), you have a right to your privacy. It is psychologically and emotionally vital.

The Digital Bill of Rights

Clearly, we have all become a little too complacent about how much of ourselves we give away when we go online. There is a reason for this. If, as I do in my exercise, you were to hand over personal information to a human being every time you gave a piece of yourself away online, you’d probably think twice about it. Because the collectors of all our information are nameless and faceless entities; because we think we are protected by the fact that metadata isn’t linked directly to our identity; and because most of us were not raised in a Stasi-like environment that would make us essentially suspicious of any kind of state sponsored (or commercially sponsored) oversight; we probably trust a little bit too much. We could probably do with being a bit more suspicious of what happens to our private information – not just for our security, but for our very psychological wellbeing.

Proponents of a digital bill of rights on on the right track with this. One of these proponents, Cybersalon (sponsors of my video above) is promoting a digital bill of rights based on their consultation and call to action. Their Digital Bill of Rights UK includes notions that we should own our own data, and that this data should not be abused and that cybersecurity should be enable the end to “government ‘backdoor’ demands on Internet technology platforms.”

Though my own expertise lies much more in the personal than on the level of policy, it strikes me that for most of the public, the threat to security still seems abstract. When confronted with the personal and psychological consequences of compromised privacy, as happens in my little exercise, people become rather more animated about the problem.

At base, it comes down to this:

Who do you want to share your secrets with? You make that determination based on developing trust with that other, and ultimately, when you share a secret part of yourself with them, it can be considered a precious gift that is yours to give or withhold. Is this a consideration you make with all that personal stuff residing in the cloud? Or do all the conveniences of free services and the disavowal of the vulnerability of our material trump these considerations. This is something we all need to reconsider – myself included – as we move into a society that may be well more transparent that we’d really like.

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More on the psychodynamics of online life in my book,

You may also wish to join my Author Page on Facebook to keep up with my latest blog posts, events, and news about psychology, social media, and technology.

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Cartoon Image Credit: DonkeyHotey

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