I've been following the debate recently caused by Facebook's latest change to their privacy policy, which seems to have got everyone talking about just how much privacy people should expect when they're 'living' in a social world.

Whilst I agree that people need to be clear on exactly which bits of their information is being shared and which is private, I don't think this is worth the furore that it's currently causing. Here's why...

People are talking about these latest changes (and their ramifications) as if they're the death-nell for privacy online.

Even Mark Zuckerberg has weighed in on the discussion, stating that if Facebook was starting out now, sharing with everybody would be the starting point",  presumably a la Twitter.

But why are people acting like they're surprised that parts of their online data are visible to more than just their circle of friends? After all, has anything we've done online ever been completely privacy-proof?

Email is something that most people would consider to be 'private', but there are numerous great examples of when emails have been anything but:

  • Ken Livingston's 'Race advisor' Lee Jasper resigned from his position after the London Evening Standard published emails he sent to a married associate.
  • Just last month, Deloitte trainee consultant Holly Leam-Taylor 'resigned' after a light-hearted email rating her male colleague 'hotties' spread around the world.
  • When media agency Carat were planning to 'decruit' a number of employees, an internal memo sent (accidentally) to the entire company proved to be a bit of an 'oops' moment...
  • Vodafone turned a mole-hill in to a mountain when they emailed 416 customers to apologise for an error, including all 416's e-mail addresses in the "to" field.

If it's not emails it's rogue text messages;  from funny messages sent to the wrong recipient and forwarded round, to saucy photos shared with friends (and then friends of friends), your privacy is never guaranteed when there's another recipient involved.

And don't even get me started on all those leaked (and 'leaked' !) celebrity sex tapes...

At the end of the day, the only time you can really guarantee privacy is when you're having a conversation face-to-face, and I'm sure enough of us have watched Spooks to know that even then it's not a guarantee.

I'm not advocating that randomly sharing data that people *think* is private is fair game, but I think people need to be a bit more realistic about how stuff they do online is shared (and stored), and not get quite so up-in-arms when companies like Facebook make changes to their T and Cs. After all, how many of us actually read the small-print when we signed-up anyway?

Henry Elliss

Published 13 January, 2010 by Henry Elliss

Henry Elliss is a senior strategist at Good Relations and contributor at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or via his own parenting blog.

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