The Privacy Problem – Living Our Lives Online

by Ken Mueller on October 15, 2012 · 4 comments

The Privacy Problem: Living Our Lives Online

We’re at a bit of a crossroads here on the Internet. Technology is advancing at an amazingly rapid pace, and we, the users, are having a hard time keeping up.

One problem we are now facing is that we want to have our cake and eat it, too. Nearly every day I hear or see someone complaining about the lack of privacy on the web, whether it’s from people sharing too much information, to how platforms and networks harvest and use our information.

On the other hand, we all want the best possible online experience. We want more relevant search results. We want our social networks to deliver a personalized experience that is more akin to Kenbook than Facebook. It’s about us, after all, right?

But how do we balance the two? We want to know what our friends are up to, but as Mitch Joel asks,

“How do we control information in a world where everything can be recorded in text, images, audio and video and instantly published for free to the world?”

How do we balance our need/desire for privacy with our need/desire for a custom user experience designed for each of us?

Here in Lancaster we have a parallel in the offline world.

We have a good police department. We would all agree that having a police department is a good thing, and we encourage the police to do those things which are necessary to deter crime and keep the peace. There are parts of the city that are a bit more difficult for the police to navigate in cruisers, due to traffic and congestion. As a result, they provide us with a stronger, more personalized police experience, by having police officers on foot, on bike, and even on horseback. These officers have a better chance of maneuvering through crowds and busy streets.

But still, police can’t be everywhere all the time. So a few years ago the Lancaster Community Safety Coalition was formed, and 165 cameras were installed on utility poles around the city. The program is administered by a private non-profit, with funding coming from a variety of public and private sources, and oversight from the city police department and the district attorney’s office. The program has been greeted with a mixture of responses; many like the extra safety, while others believe it is an intrusion on their lives and a violation of their civil rights. And the situation in this small city of 55,ooo people has also been the subject of national and international press.

But, in the past seven years the program has helped solve crimes ranging from murder and assault to robbery and drug dealing. And of course there is also the idea that the cameras might actually deter crime, but there’s no way of knowing to what extent.

We all want to see a reduction in crime to provide us with the best possible living experience here in Lancaster, but we also want our privacy. Online, we want a safe, customized experience, but to what extent? How much privacy are we willing to give up to the Googles and Facebooks of the world?

It’s a tradeoff, and each of us has to make our own decisions. Offline, we know the cameras are there, so how does that affect our public behavior? On the Internet, we need to be aware that what we share publicly on social platforms, and how we search, is data that others can see and use. How will that affect our online behavior?

I value my privacy, but I also share a lot online. On the other hand, what I share is very calculated. There are certain aspects of my life that I won’t share publicly, and we all need to determine how comfortable we are with what we share. Recently a student in one of my continuing education classes bemoaned the level of sharing of some of her friends on Facebook. She gave the response I hear many give:

“I don’t care what you’re eating”

As one who often shares pictures and descriptions of my meals, I explained to her why I disagree. If these are social networks, they are there for the purpose of being social. Part of being social, and of getting to know one another, is engaging in small talk. By “oversharing” and posting pictures of my meals, I’ve learned a lot about other people as they comment. I’ve also found new recipes and restaurants that I’d like to try.

We all have our own definitions of sharing and oversharing. We all have to decide how much access we are willing to give others to our personal information. On the other hand, if we want a truly personal, customizable experience, we have to understand that there will be tradeoffs.

In a recent post, Mark Schaefer provided a number of quotes from Dave Coplin, the Chief Visioning Officer at Microsoft, the parent company of the search engine Bing.  One of his quotes about privacy really hit home:

“Privacy is a really difficult issue because the line between personal and private is different for every person. All we can do is be transparent about what we do. The ultimate search service is like getting the ‘usual’ at your favorite restaurant or pub. You can have local, personal service wherever you go, whatever store you visit.  We all need to approach privacy as a journey and we are all involved in that.”

We want it all. Yes, I want privacy, but I also want to turn the Internet into the Kenternet. I want the search engines to know what I’m looking for. I want the social networks to be intuitive.

There are very real privacy issues. There is always the potential for abuse. But there is also a middle ground between living in a bunker on one hand, and the Truman Show on the other.

I happen to believe that social media actually makes us better people; better businesses. It forces us to live better lives. As Mitch Joel observes,

“Media pundit and journalism professor,Jeff Jarvis, argues that we must re-define “privacy” in our socially connected iPhone toting world. His latest book, Public Parts, submits that privacy is no longer about closing the curtains at night and delisting our phone numbers, but in accepting that a public life creates a better life, mostly because nobody really cares about that awkward photo of you when you were sixteen or that you’re married with three kids.”

For better or worse, there is a new normal in town. It’s up to us to determine  whether we will resist, give in, or perhaps engage in a healthy game of tug of war.

How are you approaching this new world? How do you balance your desire for privacy with your desire for a great online experience?





A desire for privacy vs. our desire for a great, personalized customer experience.

I believe that sharing is a good thing. why.

Adam | Customer Experience
Adam | Customer Experience

On the societal side, privacy is almost always eroded in the name of better security. It is often with the best intentions, and it is often worth the gain in security, but as history shows, it is an exchange that is ripe for abuse.

On the social media side, I think the only real privacy is that which you do not share. Putting something on the Internet -- even in a DM or private group -- is not private. I have wrestled with this since I began blogging and have, due to various career considerations, tended towards being business oriented and fairly reserved regarding personal sharing. I understand that I miss some of the benefits and power of social this way, but it is what I am comfortable with at this point. I am still able to make great connections and friendships, it just takes longer. (Skype is beautiful!)

A thoughtful post Ken. I could write a lot more, but alas... Monday beckons.

KenMueller moderator

@Adam | Customer Experience That's a great analysis of the situation, Adam. People need to remember that they ultimately control their own privacy. I share a lot, but not the real personal stuff. And I'm with you, I love the personal one on one connections we can make, including Skype. I actually have an idea for a Skype related project here on the blog, and you'll be included. More on that later...


  1. […] The Privacy Problem – Living Our Lives Online ( […]

Previous post:

Next post: