Privacy Mindset Lags as Change, Millennials Shape Future

Posted June 24th, 2016 at 11:00 am (UTC-4)
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FILE - School girls use mobile phones as they chat in a restaurant in Seoul, South Korea. (Reuters)

FILE – School girls use mobile phones as they chat in a restaurant in Seoul, South Korea. (Reuters)

Transformed by new technologies, mega-hackings, and government snooping, online privacy is evolving at lightning speed while the traditional understanding of privacy is stuck in the past. And it is likely that the social media generation often accused of sharing the most could end up defining the future of privacy.

What does privacy even mean? Our sense of what information should be private is being stretched all the time, sometimes … unwillingly; sometimes it’s not – Ryan Anderson

Is privacy dead? It is no wonder this question keeps cropping up, given all the personal data breaches, spying, tracking, metadata collection, all the new gadgets, cameras, wearable and biometric technologies that are siphoning information with or without consent.

Far from it, argued Ryan Anderson of the Center for Identity at the University of Texas, Austin. The popular perspective that privacy is dead ignores the nuances of privacy – a multi-faceted, complicated thing that largely depends on the point of view it represents.

“What is the citizen’s right to privacy and how do we balance that out against the need for national security? So that’s from a government perspective,” he said. “From a consumer’s perspective … how much information does the consumer share willingly and knowingly? How much does a consumer share unknowingly? … And then there’s the perspective of privacy with regard to identity fraud and malicious intent.”

Willingly or not, Anderson said “our understanding of privacy” and the way it is regulated has changed, thanks to the explosive growth of online connectivity, mobile technology, social media, big data and the personal information consumers have to cede.

“But more importantly,” he added, “our behavior has changed. So … the policies, procedures, technologies that govern privacy are playing keep up.”

Major, society-changing technologies like mobile technology and Internet connectivity “have had a profound impact that we’re frequently unable to process during our lifetime,” said Anderson. “… I don’t think our understanding of privacy has caught up to the way it is being abused in many cases or compromised.”

That, however, is not true across generations. Millennials – 18-34-year-olds who grew up with technology and social media and are often accused of excessive sharing of personal information online are redefining privacy. And theirs is an entirely different concept.

FILE - Giulia Pugliese, 15 (R) posts a picture to Snapchat while her friends look on at Roosevelt Field shopping mall in Garden City, N.Y., July 27, 2015. (AP)

FILE – Giulia Pugliese, 15 (R), posts a picture to Snapchat while her friends look on at Roosevelt Field shopping mall in Garden City, N.Y., July 27, 2015. (AP)

Chandler Givens, CEO, Co-founder of TrackOff, said it seems “fashionable” to argue that Millennials “have completely abandoned any hope of privacy” or that they “aren’t considering the long-term ramifications of over-sharing.” There are indicators that suggest the complete opposite, he said in an interview.

He credited the generation with the “explosive rise of ephemeral social media and communications,” such as Snapchat and Cyber Dust that remove users’ videos, pictures and messages once they are done chatting, and private search engines like DuckDuckGo that don’t store or share search queries.

Research done at Texas University’s Center for Identity supports that view.

“What we found … is that Millennials think differently about privacy, but they are not apathetic or ambivalent about privacy by any means,” said Anderson. “And in some cases, they have a more nuanced and complex understanding of privacy than people from other generations because they are digital natives.”

Ask Millennials about data-tracking and what information should be protected, and Anderson said they are likely to have “a better sense of what needs to be protected and what doesn’t.”

They know, for example, that their credit card information is easily compromised. They are less concerned about biographical data, but understand the importance of safeguarding their social security numbers. And yet they share the older generation’s concern for privacy and the same lack of control over it.

“It’s not that they’re experts,” he added. “It’s just that their comfort level using the technology is in many cases much higher than other generations. And so it’s easy to mistake that for apathy with regards to privacy, where I think the real risk is that most people feel not a sense of not caring about privacy, but a sense of … inability to control their privacy.”

Now, a new generation of college graduates who have never known a world without Facebook or Twitter are coming of age. And they, too, have “a far different understanding of privacy.”

Anderson believes it is necessary to have a conversation with these kids in order to understand their attitude toward privacy and make them understand Internet risks without discouraging them from participating “in the online world they live in.”

These are the kids who will determine what privacy will look like in days to come.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

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