The Evolution of Internet Privacy

When I was in college, I kept an online diary. If I started it today, you’d call it a blog, except that I didn’t write about things that might be interesting to other people; mostly, I talked about my feelings, but nothing was sacred. I wrote about anything and everything that crossed my mind or made an impression on me.

In addition to recounting the mundane activities of my days in excruciating detail and bemoaning the state of my personal life, I wrote about my friends. Actually, that doesn’t feel like full disclosure: I used my friends’ full names, published contact information (like AOL Instant Messenger handles), and posted pictures of them. I gave details about where they lived, named the people they hung out with, identified where they worked (if they were employed). I noted their birthdays and described the cars they drove. I didn’t think for two seconds about the potential danger my writings might pose for my friends.

I didn’t think about it because the Internet wasn’t then what it is today. This was, if you can imagine, a time pre-Facebook, when AOL keywords were relevant and I used Lycos as my search engine because Google only barely existed. Unless you had a link directly to my blog or clicked on one of my paid banner ads (part of the image hosting package), you were highly unlikely to run across it. I know, because I tried. I’d recently become interested in web development and the concept of keywords and search engines fascinated me.

In short, the Internet was…safer…back then. For the casual user, the world wide web was a vast abyss of barely decipherable information accessed via very narrow portals, and it was easy to get lost and stay that way. “Privacy” wasn’t a concept of which I was aware, because nothing was connected. And then spiders – automatic indexing bots that crawl the web gathering data for search engines – came along to expose everyone. Services like Google made a point of connecting all the pieces and suddenly, the names and photos and other information I posted with a false sense of anonymity became readily available to anyone who searched for words and phrases I used alongside them. In fact, even though I made it private, if you know where to look and what to look for, you can still find those things. If I’d had any idea how drastically the landscape would shift, I might have played my hand a little closer to the chest. But I might not have. After all, I was young and believed myself exempt from consequences.

It’s not so hard to see, then, how young people today get caught in sexting and social media scandals. The problem is, though the risk to their privacy (and by extension, their safety) is significant, “we” aren’t equipping them to manage that risk. The good news is, I think it’s a passing problem. After all, part of the issue is that these technologies are not yet well-understood by today’s teens’ parents, for whom the advent of the cordless telephone (which could be taken out of anyone’s earshot) revolutionized gossip. Pretty soon today’s teens will be the parents, and they’ll be able to educate their own children about the risks of the digital world…and hopefully convince them not to keep a public online diary.