Changing views of privacy

If you’ve read the Radical for any length of time, you know that I’m a real digital junkie.  There aren’t many technologies that I haven’t explored and/or completely embraced, both in my professional and my personal life.

While others—like my good friend Dina Strasser—are carefully thinking about the impact that technology is having on human interactions, I’m gleefully whizzing off to the gadget store to pick up the latest gizmo.

But for the past few years, I’ve started to wonder about the impact that digital solutions and services are having on privacy rights in our country.

I mean, think about itWe’re slipping microchips into the backpacks and clothes of our sons and daughters so that we can track them if they get lost.  We use similar devices to get instant updates every time that our teens are speeding in the family sedan.

We use Google Latitude to mark our locations so that our friends can find us easily with applications on their cell phones, we are Twittering out the bars and restaurants that we’re visiting, and we’re even sharing lists of everything that we buy.

My guess is that the users of these tools and/or services are convinced that their lives are being improved by new digital solutions that we could only imagine “back in the day”—and there is some truth to that:  If my daughter is ever missing, I’d want to be able to track her down, too.

But I’m also becoming convinced that our freewheeling approach to what we’re willing to share is leading to a carefree—even careless—attitude towards privacy.

That’s why we don’t get all fired up when Mark Zuckerberg—Facebook’s founder—changes privacy settings constantly on his service, often with the end result being that more people can see and know more about us—and our friends—than we ever intended.

That’s why we don’t question Google’s desire to track every web search that we ever make while signed in to their service or the purpose of Microsoft’s Index.dat file, which keeps a record of every file that you open on your computer that can’t be erased without a special application.

That’s why no one gets all riled up when our government asks Internet service providers to keep a two-year record of every website we visit and email that we send.

That’s why we never question our local grocery store’s decision to track every purchase that we make through our MVP cards—as long as they’ll give us cheaper bacon and a couple of juicy coupons when we check out!

Now, I get it:  There are legitimate reasons to embrace every one of these digital applications.

Google can provide customized search results if you are willing to let them look closely at the information you’re interested in, Facebook can help you make new connections if everyone is completely transparent, and the government can track down criminals if they have access to every email ever sent by every person working online.

Those are good things, right?

But what will the consequences of this casual attitude towards digital privacy be twenty years from now when kids who have been raised in an era of unprecedented openness become the lawmakers of a new generation?

That’s an interesting question that I’m not sure I have an answer for—but the pessimist in me worries that we might be unintentionally giving away a fundamental piece of who we are, and I’m not all that comfortable with that decision.

I also wonder whether these are the kinds of conversations that we should be having with students in the 21st Century.  If a part of our job is to develop responsible citizens, wouldn’t that include lessons centered around the difference between what we CAN do with technology versus what we SHOULD do with technology?

Does this make any sense?