Privacy is one of those things. You know that it exists but you don’t necessarily believe in it wholeheartedly. I mean, if you did, surely you wouldn’t post your personal details all over the internet for everybody to see – unless you wanted them to, of course.

You don’t have to read very far around this subject to find alarmist stories, from the urban myth that the CIA invented Facebook (or MI5 in a recent version I heard) to persuade us all to place our identities online, to more sober reflections on what privacy means to different people and how online exposure can impact on your life. A friend of mine recently explained how exposure on a social networking site could literally cost them their life as a result of a disturbing past liaison. Most of us are far less concerned about being found and are willing to forgo such concerns in the hope of making new friends and contacts, or finding old ones again. More troubling, however, are the possibilities of building up an identity profile by cross referencing web sites and using photo recognition software (Gross and Acquisiti) and back-door Facebook applications to mine hidden data.

It is tempting to remind ourselves that the chances of someone stealing our indentity are pretty remote. I have to confess to being more nervous of throwing my bank details out with the rubbish than I am to having them stolen online (though I won’t tempt fate by pouring scorn on the idea – remember what happened to Jeremy Clarkson 🙂 . I also think that it’s unlikely that anyone would want to stalk me, though I recognise that these risks are real enough to others. Of course Mark Zuckerberg has an interesting ‘people want to opt out while we use everyone else’s data to make money with’ spin on the matter, but then he would as he has done rather well out of allowing Facebook to do just that.

As I was writing this, a conversation was struck up between colleagues, one of whom has just discovered the joys of Facebook and had had a live chat with a friend that has gone ot work in China. The wonders of the social network seemed clear enough to her at the time of speaking, but as she did so, another colleague interjected with the declaration that she would never use FB. ‘It’s too creepy’ – someone from the past that she hadn’t invited contact with had got hold of her email address from an online communication between two mutual friends and this had unnerved her slightly. This set me wondering about the number of times I’ve actively tracked down old friends via the web in the past; they’ve always seemed pleased to hear from me, but maybe on occasion they might have found my sudden appearance ‘creepy’. I’ll never know, but at least I can be sure through Facebook that they are inviting contact and that they don’t have to accept my friend request. To this extent at least, Zuckerberg is right, they can opt out of contact if they want, and I won’t be too upset either.

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