Disco ball – used under Creative Commons license from http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected] about privacy breaches, companies gathering data without informing users, and companies changing privacy policies seem to be a daily occurrence. While future blog posts will look at what you, as a user of online tools, can do to protect your privacy, I wanted to step back and examine what we mean by privacy. It’s important to know what privacy means and how we perceive the privacy of certain information to understand how we want to handle such information.To help get at the ideas behind privacy, let’s use a fictitious example:JoeJoe is a mid-career civil engineer and construction manager at a large firm. He earned his degree from a Big 10 university and was active in intramural athletics and his fraternity. He is married to Cathy and has three children.Joe loves the song “Dancing Queen” by the Swedish band Abba, but worries about what others would think of him if they knew. While he’ll sing the song when he’s alone in the car, he hasn’t shared his feeling with anyone else.Joe’s love of “Dancing Queen” is private. As long as he doesn’t share that information, it will remain private.Let’s look at some ways Joe might share that information, along with some possible ramifications.Joe tells CathySuppose Joe tells his wife Cathy that he loves the song. Joe trusts and loves Cathy, and her knowing about “Dancing Queen” doesn’t change the way she feels for or behaves towards him. Therefore, there’s no direct harm from Cathy knowing his private information. Indeed, he could benefit, because now she may let him know when it’s playing on the radio, buy him an Abba album for his birthday, etc.Cathy tells a friendAt a party, Cathy hears “Dancing Queen” playing and tells her best friend, Nell, who’s married to one of Joe’s co-workers, that it’s Joe’s favorite song, but not to tell anyone. If Nell doesn’t tell anyone else, then there is still no harm to Joe. However, suppose Nell mentions to her husband that Joe loves “Dancing Queen” and the next day, as a joke, he blasts the song on the loud speaker at the construction site. Joe may feel harmed, because the information he considered private and embarrassing is now known by his co-workers and is being used to poke fun at him.Joe uses the InternetJoe wants the lyrics to “Dancing Queen” so he goes to the Google website and searches for “Abba Dancing Queen lyrics.” He finds the lyrics, and also looks at some other sites related to Abba. He does a couple more searches for Abba information, and ends up buying an Abba compilation album from Amazon.com and downloads an MP3 of “Dancing Queen” from iTunes. Then he uses the online service Spotify, to listen to a bunch of Abba’s music.Here we have moved away from the familiar interpersonal sharing of information, and are instead dealing with corporations and large databases. So what information has Joe shared, and what are the possible effects?Because he did a bunch of searches for Abba-related information, it’s quite likely that Joe will begin seeing advertisements for Abba-related items on Google sites. The advertising services on the sites Joe visited probably set a cookie in his browser, so that when he goes to other sites they serve, they may present him with Abba-related advertisements. Amazon and iTunes may begin promoting to him items similar to the Abba album he purchased. Spotify will recommend similar music, and if he has connected Facebook and Spotify, his listening to the Abba music may be shared with his Facebook friends. In addition, there are other indirect players that know about his interest, including his Internet Service Provider and credit-card company.The actions Joe took online have many diverse effects. Some may be viewed as positive, e.g., if Joe ends up seeing an ad for the Blu-Ray release of “Mamma Mia,” which features music by Abba. Other effects are neutral; e.g., the service or company having a record of Joe’s interest in a database somewhere has no measurable impact on Joe. But if his preference ends up being shared on a network like Facebook, Joe may view it as potentially harmful.Use of information vs. possessionThe above stories illustrate that having someone else simply possess information we think of as private is not the real problem. Instead, it is how that information is used. Does it change the possessor’s behavior or feelings? Does the possessor share that information with someone else? Are we even aware of how that information is used or shared? These are the real questions we should should take into account when we decide what we do with our private information.The love of “Dancing Queen” is a silly example of information one might consider private, but it’s easy to see how this story might apply to other concerns such as health issues, financial information, and other important data. The only truly private information we have is information that we keep only to ourselves. Once it is known by others, we have to trust that they will use our information only in ways we wish.The concerns about privacy are really concerns about what a person or company will do with our private information. Therefore, when we make a decision to share data we consider personal or private, we must consider how that information will be used. We trust (or don’t trust) other people based on our existing relationships with them and our expectations of what they will do with our information. Sometimes, but not often, we may have a written or spoken agreement about how our information will be used.With companies, particularly online, we are dealing with entities that are typically, not a single person, and that we may not have dealt with before. We therefore rely on other factors before deciding to share personal data with them: reputation, transparency, written agreements, cost versus benefit, etc.Consciously or not, each time we share information or browse sites, we weigh the risk that the information we’ve shared gets used beyond our desires compared to the perceived benefit we get from sharing the information or visiting the site.Future blog posts will examine these issues in more detail, particularly the factors we consider when sharing information in an online space.(If you’re not familiar with the song, you can view the music video of Dancing Queen on YouTube)Author: Stephen Judd (+Stephen Judd, @sjudd) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.