Skip to main content
more options

Privacy and the Internet

Postings Are Forever

It’s your profile, you can include what you want to include—right? Before you post, think. Are you prepared to have those words and images represent you for months, and even years to come? Your postings on profiles and to chats and blogs may have cyberlives much longer than what you might have imagined or intended, and may reach a much wider audience than you could have anticipated. This simple fact is illustrated in the following examples from around the country:

  • Students who posted party photos online later found that those photos were used by their university’s administration when it needed to make a case regarding alcohol abuse among minors.
  • A student’s application for a position as a resident advisor was rejected by university staff who reviewed the applicant’s Facebook page and found the material there to be inappropriate.
  • A graduate’s job application was rejected when the hiring organization deemed objectionable some of the content he had posted online.
  • Students were reprimanded for extreme and possibly libelous statements they made about a professor in Facebook postings.

Are your online postings private? No, not at all. Many postings can and will be viewed by hiring committees, admissions personnel, marketing agencies, and other unintended audiences. Privacy is a complicated matter in American law, evoking everything from Fourth Amendment rights to civil rights. Explore the following topics to learn more about the ins and outs of privacy in the online environment.

The Evolving Concept of Privacy

Before students and scholars began to use the Internet as a part of their lives and work, it would have been unusual to have discussed privacy in the same context as copyright or academic integrity. Teaching in physical space, publication in hard-copy academic journals, communication via the postal service, two-party telephone lines, and non-dynamic media in newspapers and on radio and television all contributed to what for most people was a clear divide between public and private life. Family photographs were viewed at home. Photographs in people’s offices were often varieties of portraiture, not candid photos depicting intimate scenes. Indeed, regulated physical spaces, such as schools, workplaces, theaters, parks, restaurants, and even saloons, were almost always the foundation for how one person got to know another. Manners and conventions—which controlled how one dressed, introduced oneself, and conversed with other people—attested to the formal nature of social life, and all of these factors contributed to the structuring of a social order firmly grounded in the easy distinction between public and private realms.

Historians will point to many factors that have contributed to our changed perspective about public and private in the last quarter century, but they will all agree that no single factor has had a greater influence on how privacy was turned inside-out than the introduction of mobile-communication devices. Social-networking sites, for example, have become not only a way for people to brand or market themselves, but also a way to expose themselves, literally and figuratively, to a wider world. In contrast with a life that could previously have been lived in near-perfect anonymity, in contemporary life our private activity routinely becomes public record, whether voluntarily because we keep a blog, or involuntarily because we can’t control the tracking functionality of Internet cookies or of global-positioning systems that monitor us through our cell phones. The steady disappearance of the telephone booth, with its anachronistic interior and door, speaks volumes about the changes our expectations for privacy have undergone in just a few decades: none of us then could have foreseen the state of things today, where we can learn virtually anything about a stranger’s life just by sitting within earshot of her in a doctor’s office, airport terminal, or restaurant, while she casually reveals herself on her mobile phone.

Privacy and Digital Literacy

What does this recognition of how private life has diminished have to do with digital literacy? Insofar as this diminishment influences what people think both of each other and of themselves, both in communities and individually—everything! Take as an example the fact that, developmentally, an undergraduate education has a profound effect on who students become and on what they can reasonably aspire to in their adult lives. While that fact was true before we were online, Internet communication has made casual undergraduate experiences considerably less carefree. You, the student, may realize intellectually that professors, administrators, and employers—present and future—can readily find information about you on the Internet, but does that mean that you have that fact in mind every time you are online? Do you always consider, for example, that the consequences of poor judgment today can last well beyond the impulsive moment that might inspire you to mock a third party on a social-networking site, or make a funny, off-color observation in a post to a friend’s blog?

Privacy plays an integral role in digital literacy because it serves ethical purposes: it measures whether people use information technology responsibly and how well courts and governments apply the traditional legal and policy practices that protect research and the creative process. Too much privacy around information, for example, locks up material that potentially could be used in creative projects; too little privacy could, depending on the information, devalue and degrade incentives for innovation. A balance must be maintained.

Contemporary communication devices and the Internet may well have changed how society views certain kinds of privacy, but, ultimately, nothing can destroy privacy itself. It is inherent in the dignity of the person, and if higher education is about anything, it is about its service to the cause of human dignity.