orgtheory.net

facebook’s data scandal won’t make much of a difference: a comment on interpersonal vs. structural privacy

with 2 comments

Right now, Facebook is under tremendous criticism because the firm inappropriately allowed a third party to use their data. There is much consternation and even Facebook’s stock price has taken a hit. But from my view, I don’t think much will change. Why? People are very comfortable with a lack of “structural privacy.” In contrast, they deeply resent the violation of “interpersonal privacy.”

These discussions assume that there is a single thing called “privacy” and that people will get upset when they don’t have privacy. This assumption comes from the nature of human interaction pre-industrial revolution. Before the rise of modern information systems, whether they be Census documents or Facebook meta-data, privacy meant that people in your immediate environment did not have access to all the information about you. This even applied to families. Many of us, for example, have diaries that we don’t want other family members to read.

Why do we value “interpersonal” privacy? There are many reasons. We may not want our immediately relations to know that we are critical of what they do. Maybe we don’t want our neighbors to know that we like strange food. Or maybe we don’t want our employer to know that we don’t like them so much. What these reasons and others share in common is that the possession of knowledge prevents inter-personal conflict. Without privacy, we wouldn’t be free to form opinions and we would likely be in constant conflict with each other.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal and the Snowden revelations are about a different flavor of privacy – one that I call “structural privacy.” In the modern age, all kinds of institutions collect data on us. It could be the phone company, or the Internal Revenue Service, or Facebook. However, the data is often summarized so that it doesn’t involve a single person. When people access it, they rarely have any personal relationship to the people in the data base. Thus, people don’t usually experience interpersonal conflict when they loose “structural privacy,” the privacy that is maintained when information is collected by institutions for collective purposes. The IRS agent who peeks at your return or the Facebook employee who looks at your friendship list almost never know you and they don’t care.

This suggests that Facebook will probably be fine in the long term. People, in general, seem to be ok with the fact that firms and states routinely violate their structural privacy. The Snowden revelations barely elicited any push back from the public and almost no change in public policy. Here, I think the same process will play out. As long as Facebook can maintain privacy at the interpersonal level, they can carry on as usual.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome! 

Advertisements

Written by fabiorojas

April 9, 2018 at 4:45 am

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Hey, this is a No FB Zone!

    Like

    QuietBlogster

    April 9, 2018 at 8:38 am

  2. What is missing is an explanation of how ‘structural’ data can be used to throw a vote. I am skeptical of a strict distinction between ‘structural’ privacy and ‘interpersonal’ privacy. Technically, there is no structural “privacy.” Firms and the government regularly publish information about people related to their consumer activities: how much power they use, incomes and tax rates, home ownership information including sale prices, etc. So, there is a great deal of structural information in the public domain which many people find invidious.

    Like

    Fredrick Welfare

    April 13, 2018 at 1:58 pm


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: