Sacrificing Privacy Online: Is it Really a Choice?

I posted this question in triciawyse's diary and I thought I would pose this to the entire community. I've frequently come across a very popular argument in response to the NSA scandal, that we willingly sacrifice our privacy when we sign up for facebook, Google, foursquare, and other email and social networking services. It's true that nobody held a gun to my head when I signed up for facebook and I knew that I wasn't completely anonymous when I came up with the clever nickname for my newest Google account. But in the 21st century, can we really opt out of the internet?

We are rapidly approaching the day when so much of what we do is done online that not using the internet, which requires one of those not-so secret email accounts, is not only impractical, its impossible. Let me give you a couple of personal examples.


I recently finished up my PhD and I was a teaching assistant at my institution. My school used an email system hosted by Google and a classroom management system called Blackboard. Students were expected to use their email and Blackboard as part of their course requirements. In my course, I posted slides online and all of the homework assignments were submitted ONLINE. I also used a classroom responses system this semester so students could answer questions using their cellphones, tablets, or laptops during lecture. They had to register at a privacy course and give their student ID number, email account, and phone number. The alternative for students concerned about their privacy? Drop out and find a school that didn't require computer technology.


When I started on the job market last fall, I created a profile on LinkedIn. Beyond knowing when a potential employer had looked at my profile, I'm not sure it was that useful for me. But when I asked friends who user their LinkedIn accounts more often, they said that it was excellent networking tool for their jobs. If you don't use it, you might miss out on something.

Speaking of work, a few years ago, I asked my school, for personal reasons, to remove my name and email from the department website. I was told that, because I was an employee (as well as a student) of the institution, that information had to be public information. And very soon, my name, photo, CV, and email address will be posted on the website at my new school.


This spring, I needed to pay my tuition in pinch. I was having trouble with my debit card using the online payment portal, so I went to the cashier's office to pay in person only to learn that I had to use the online payment portal (and pay the $10 "convenience" charge) if I wanted to use a credit or debit card. In fact, when I arrived, the cashier pointed me to computers set up at the back of the room for students to pay online. Alternatively, I could write a check (but I had no earthly clue where my checkbook was) or I could go to an ATM and withdraw the cash (over several days because of my bank's daily limit). I also could have driven to the bank with debit card and done a withdrawal, but again, the easiest option is one that would have required me to enter my debit card information online.

Have you ever tried reaching a customer service representative for a financial matter? When you call, you are repeatedly asked to visit the website (can you do that without an internet account?) and read the FAQ. And what is easier, sending a check every month, paying an extra feel to pay your bills over the phone, or schedule automatic payments using online banking. I would never remember to pay my bills if I didn't have it set for online payment.

Social Networking

If you don't want to be on facebook, log off. Really? It's that simple? A recent survey by Pew found that most teenagers hate facebook. So why would somebody stay on facebook if they hate it. Several months ago, I de-activated my facebook account in a fit of rage. I was sick of people posting irritating status updates, making ignorant, condescending comments, and correcting my grammar (who needs a Debbie Downer?). I quickly discovered that not being on facebook meant less frequent pictures of my nieces (5 months old and 3 1/2 years old), less joking around with good friends, less contact with friends and family who live far away, and missing out events posted to facebook. So even though I hated it, I came back. A dear friend of mine who's managed to stay away for almost a year and half is close to re-activating her account after a great deal of peer pressure -- a chunk of our social circle graduated this spring and we are spreading out across the country. She also hates facebook.

I realize that this reads like a list of first world problems, but the point I'm making here is that although we choose to create email and social networking accounts, this technology is integrating with our lives to such a degree that the alternatives are, at the very least, unpleasant and impractical. In fact, the alternatives lead us backward, to world that is less efficient, less connect, and where individuals are more isolated from one another. Would the Arab Spring have happened without the internet? We should not have to choose between technology and privacy.




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