Monday, March 26, 2012

Online Privacy and Generational Divides

image source
Two recent posts about online privacy (one from David Patt and the other from Seth Godin) got me thinking more and more about the subject. Both authors seem to take a "tough toenails" approach to the subject, calling into question why people have an expectation of privacy online in the first place.

And I agree with them. The reality is that the stuff you put on Facebook doesn't belong to you. It belongs to Facebook. Grudgingly, I think, people are now beginning to understand this. Call it the "creeping Facebook realization."

But let's take it one step further. Privacy concerns are often raised when discussions or legislation turns toward the use of electronic medical records. Some people get really incensed over the idea of doctors, employers, insurance companies, or governments accessing their medical records without their permission. I suspect these people have a painful reckoning coming similar to that of the Facebookers who are distressed at discovering that Facebook is using "their" information without their permission.

Who owns your medical record? Today, the consensus opinion probably supports the concept that you do. But I believe we are moving towards a society where that will no longer be the case. In this strange future, the entity that owns your medical record will be the one that owns the data network on which it resides.

People generally have one of two reactions when I propose this concept to them--and they usually break down along clear generational lines.

1. Older generation: "Impossible! What a dark and horrifying view of the future. Such a move would spell the end of the individual. We must fight against it at all costs!"

2. Younger generation: "So what?"

Although I don't necessarily support the change, I think progress is on the side of the younger generation on this one. The older generation will go kicking and screaming, but eventually we will enter a time when the very concept of "online privacy" will lose its political force. No one will care about it enough to ensure that online systems even take it into consideration.

There will certainly be some dystopian elements to that future society, but there will also be some benefits that we currently can't realize. The issue of our medical history and the services we need to access is a thorny one, but imagine a world in which the sharing of information we now consider personal is used to fuel greater discovery and innovation to benefit our human species. Imagine a global network of researchers with access to a new and complete database of human disease and pathology. Imagine any physician, anywhere, anytime, being able to provide an individual patient with the interventions most suited to their personal case history.

Just writing those last two sentences I know that they will terrify some people. Our culture is too laden with images of Big Brother and mistrust of bureaucratic institutions to expect anything else. But our culture is changing, and in many ways I think the creeping Facebook realization is the leading edge of it. Over the next twenty years, we'll see our notion of online privacy change from its current all-consuming fight for individual liberty to a compromise that will be struck between that liberty, the corporate interests of the network owners, and the general benefits that its erosion can deliver to society.


  1. So, will the global network of personal health information be available to potential employers, banks, landlords and mortgage companies?

    People won't say, "So What?" when they find that info used in ways that hurt them.

  2. I don't know, David. The point I'm trying to make is that younger generations will negotiate the terms on which "private" information will be shared on a different set of principles than the ones older generations would bring to the table.

  3. "Generational" attitudes won't stay the same forever. People modify their views as they acquire new experiences.

    If nothing ever changed, for example, marijuana would be legal today.

  4. I agree that people modify their views as they acquire new experiences, David. But I also agree that culture changes, and that different generational perspectives are one of the forces that drive that change. By your definition, the percentage of women who keep their maiden name after marriage should also be unchanged throughout our history.