Public and private online spaces

One of the themes to emerge from our 2010 Consumer Privacy Consultations was the blurring of the divide between our public and private lives online. As we note in our consultation report:

with the prevalence of mobile technology and increasing popularity of social networking, the traditional notion of public and private spaces is changing. Social networking provides individuals with the mechanisms to make their private lives more public, and this is contributing to shifting expectations of privacy. In turn, some social networking operators point to this shift to justify further openness and sharing. The use of mobile phones and the increasing availability of location-based applications further bring the public eye into the private realm.

Our Office is striving to better understand the dynamics of information sharing in digital environments and what private and public really mean to the average person. Last February, as part of our Insights on Privacy speaker series, Christena Nippert-Eng and Alessandro Acquisti spoke about what motivates us to reveal or conceal details of our personal lives, and how we protect the private lives of others around us.

More recently, we conducted a poll of a thousand Canadians to gauge their attitudes about the types of information they consider private online and off.  Half of respondents admitted to sharing more information about themselves today, both online and offline, than they did five years ago. The poll also showed that the majority of those surveyed limits access to their personal information online, and either asks for permission or refrains from sharing the personal information of others. However, a similar majority of respondents posts their real names and personal details online and has not asked others to refrain from posting their information.  We will be using the survey results to narrow our focus as we pursue further study in this area.

An increasing number of researchers and other thought leaders have started engaging in meaningful dialogue about the shifting concepts of public and private space and the resulting impacts on information sharing. For example, the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University recently held a symposium on Designing Privacy and Public Space in the Connected World, to discuss, in part, how design is also an agent of change. New media are our new public forums and the design of their interfaces affects what people reveal, wittingly or not.  Design is essential in making legible the line between private and public, and in showing people the significance of the information they are revealing.” Design was also the focus of our April speaker series event where Adam Greenfield and Aza Raskin discussed opportunities for privacy in the design of intimate devices, like smart phones, that we have integrated into our daily lives.

Hopefully, as we explore what drives people to online disclosure, we will be able to come up with ways to ensure that privacy can in fact exist online.

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