Justice

You're Probably Censoring Yourself Online More than You Thought. Here's Why

January 11th 2015

By:
Carol Pinchefsky

Depending on who you ask, Millennials are either overeager to share their personal details or more concerned than any other generation about online life. But there's only one fact we know for certain about privacy and Millennials, says the latest study from the Pew Research Center: "[A] public life is the new default."

With people posting intimate details about their lives, with pics because it happened, people are living very much in the public eye—even if that public is limited to a few hundred close friends (and their friends). This puts privacy, i.e., the freedom from unwanted intrusion, at risk. 

Millennial Views on Tech

Like many Millennials, 19-year-old Jesse Sedberry knows to keep private facts offline. "The 21st century is a digital text book. If it's on the web, chances are someone's gonna find it." But other than that, he's not concerned that we're living public lives. "We're more monitored now, but I think it's merited." What with concerns about security, Sedberry said, "I'd rather be safe than sorry."

Don't Forget about Protection from Business and Government

But privacy doesn't merely refer to keeping what happens in Vegas strictly in Vegas. You also need be aware about keeping out of the Eye of Sauron that is the government and business.

Unlike Sedberry, 18-year-old Kyla Ann Jermin is concerned about her online life. "[I]t's still pretty disturbing to think that the things I look up or post online are essentially compiled to make a profile of me. It's kind of creepy to be honest, especially because I consider myself a pretty private person, and so to think that someone or something is keeping any eye on me like that is unnerving."

Even if you're not concerned about strangers knowing you're a Belieber, think about what the chilling effect means to society: If there is no doctor-patient confidentiality, people may suffer in silence rather than seek help. More importantly, if a free press is to function, investigative journalists need to write without fear of repercussion or revealing their sources. However, according to Fall 2014 study reported in The New York Times, 44 percent of journalists in "free" countries have "report[ed] self-censorship" and have "curtail[ed] social media activity, or said they were considering it, because of surveillance." 

Even if you personally think privacy is not important to you, you're impacted by the loss of it.

In a telephone conversation, Nadia Kayyali, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, "When you are living your life completely in public and you have no privacy, that means that the government has all the information it could ever want about you. I think it is incredibly disturbing that the constitution has all of these nods to privacy in it, but people are talking about privacy like it's not a big deal. If it's not a big deal, then when why do we have the Fourth Amendment? Why do we have the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure? It's because privacy is important. Total information equals total power."

Luckily, not everyone believes that life in the public eye is the inevitable cost of living in the 21st century.

"I think that while we could be heading that direction, it's not necessarily true right now," Jermin said. "It's pretty rare not to have a Facebook [profile], but there are plenty of people whose profiles are the bare minimum. So while we may be moving towards that as a new default, I don't think that's wholly true yet."

Kayyali said, "There's no question that lots of corporations would like public life to be the new default, because that is their business model." But as the Pew survey focused on government and business rather than people, "I personally would love to see information about what people know what it means to live their life in public and how people actually feel about it."

Protecting Your Privacy

So what can security-conscious Millennials do to protect the future of private life?

It goes without saying that you should use strong encryption and make sure you never repeat the same password twice (a password manager, such as KeePassX, can keep track of them for you). 

You can also dive in to the EFF's training modules on surveillance self defense, which includes threat modeling (putting yourself in your potential hacker's mindset), teaching you to use the right tools and providing suggestions on how to keep your data safe.

Kayyali said, "To every Millennial, I would say online privacy is possible. And that everyone should educate themselves on why they should care."

This young, Internet-savvy generation is becoming older and wiser each year. According to Rebecca Lieb, an author and an industry analyst for the Altimeter Group quoted by the Pew Study, it's only a matter of time before the Millennials become the next "policy makers." 

Lieb wrote, “My optimistic viewpoint is that, with just a bit more time, those who will attempt to balance the interests of personal privacy and business interests will do so from a more informed perspective, legally, culturally, and with a better perspective on disruption.”