Changing Generational Notions of Privacy

Interesting article.

And after all, there is another way to look at this shift. Younger people, one could point out, are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion. Every street in New York has a surveillance camera. Each time you swipe your debit card at Duane Reade or use your MetroCard, that transaction is tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.

So it may be time to consider the possibility that young people who behave as if privacy doesn’t exist are actually the sane people, not the insane ones. For someone like me, who grew up sealing my diary with a literal lock, this may be tough to accept. But under current circumstances, a defiant belief in holding things close to your chest might not be high-minded. It might be an artifact—quaint and naïve, like a determined faith that virginity keeps ladies pure. Or at least that might be true for someone who has grown up “putting themselves out there” and found that the benefits of being transparent make the risks worth it.

Shirky describes this generational shift in terms of pidgin versus Creole. “Do you know that distinction? Pidgin is what gets spoken when people patch things together from different languages, so it serves well enough to communicate. But Creole is what the children speak, the children of pidgin speakers. They impose rules and structure, which makes the Creole language completely coherent and expressive, on par with any language. What we are witnessing is the Creolization of media.”

Posted on March 9, 2007 at 7:28 AM21 Comments


troubling March 9, 2007 8:23 AM

This kind of thing worries me. So much fourth amendment analysis centers on what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy. If the next generation’s privacy expectations are so slight, the scope of their constitutional rights will likewise shrink.

ArchonMagnus March 9, 2007 8:54 AM

The US Constitution doesn’t explicitly grant the expectation of privacy. The “right of privacy” is loosely granted by precedent cases using the so-called “Liberty clause” (Section I) of the 14th Amendment. I agree that by gradually diluting the expectation of privacy, it will eventually erode away completely (especially where shopping convienience or national-security is concerned).

While many proponents of the modern social internet structure may have reduced expectations of privacy, it still seems absurd to make it easier for data-miners, stalkers, identity theives, and other miscreants to collect personally identifying information–not to mention making potentially incriminating data publically available for employers requiring background investigations. I am not considered chronologically-challenged (early 20’s), but I don’t buy-in to the geneological excuse as presented in the article. It seems more likely that there are too many people trying to use the internet exposure to gain the proverbial “Fifteen-minutes-of-fame.” I guess everyone loves an audience, no matter what the cost…

Mike Sherwood March 9, 2007 9:19 AM

It’s true that we’re all living our lives more publicly whether we like it or not. No matter what we do, there are people collecting information and making conclusions based on that. There’s no way around that because a lack of data points is a data point too.

transparency March 9, 2007 9:22 AM

This article makes me think of David Brin’s novel Earth. There’s a significant generation gap regarding transparency, privacy, and secrecy in the future-history of the story.

J.D. Abolins March 9, 2007 9:54 AM

One of the interesting challenges with the generational differences on privacy views is the collisions of the rules for interpreting and responding to the information. When a person living by a younger generations privacy/disclosure views is dealing with people and institutions operating with 1960s or 1980s rules and views. (In a way, they each grew up in very different worlds.)

Incidentally, stating the obvious, generational cohorts are not homogeneous.


Good reference with Brin’s Earth novel.

BTW, there was a “Surveillance Bill of Rights” on the Universal Transparency” site at Currently, it seems to be under reconstruction and the “bill of rights” is not there now nor readily accessible via Shame, it was good thought provoking document.

Anonymous March 9, 2007 9:54 AM

Comon guys, because a few extremest go for showing or saying something, you wouldn´t do – it is not an expression that

  1. She won´t regret it and realize that the digital world neither forget nor forgive.
  2. This is anywhere near the general perception of the next generation. On the contrary – youth know very well to use nicknames in chatfora. And when they get a family, debt and reputation to protect, they change perception radically towards the self-protective.

Don´´t exaggerate this.

Max Erickson March 9, 2007 10:06 AM


Kids who share stuff online still have respect for the privacy of others. They may think that it is o.k. to share more, but it doesn’t translate into any expectations about what others should be forced to share.

I didn’t finish the article, did it examine the expectation of privacy that adults tell these kids to expect at school?

Terry Cloth March 9, 2007 11:29 AM

@ArchonMagnus: “The US Constitution doesn’t explicitly grant the expectation of privacy”

One of the things I find disturbing is the courts’ need to build the principle of “expectation of privacy” from bits and pieces of the Constitution. The Founders didn’t write it in because they couldn’t imagine not having privacy.

Need a private talk? Walk out into the middle of a field, where you can see anyone coming. Zero chance of being overheard.

Want to avoid any chance of anyone ever knowing the contents of your papers? Burn them. Impossible to reconstruct.

If you ride or walk beyond your home area, no one can know you were there. Or at least not without a lot of legwork.

Now we chat on portable and cell phones, and the Feds mandate that they have trivial access to any land-line phone call they’re interested in; parabolic mikes blow the “middle of a field” idea; and lasers on panes of glass mean they don’t even need to put a detectable bug inside to listen to you.

“Erased” that letter on your hard drive? You have to go to extraordinary lengths to make it hard to recover, and only physical destruction of the drive can guarantee privacy. Store-and-forward e-mail leaves a copy every step of the way.

License plates? Not on horses.

People lose their privacy because they have no idea how much they used to have. I bet less than one in ten (and I think I’m being extremely generous) are even aware of any of the above threats, and thus don’t see the encroachment. Or worse, know but think the authorities are fully justified in taking advantage of them, and have no idea how much they’ve lost.

What to do? For the individual, write letters to legislators and describe what’s happening to friends, acquaintances, enemies, and the odd stranger with whom you happen to strike up a conversation. For those in power, pass up the opportunity for more power, and be willing to explain why the popular wisdom is wrong. Or, be Bruce Schneier. Oh, yeah, we’ve already got one of them. 🙂

Anonymous March 9, 2007 12:46 PM

See, as a moody loner with a handgun, a shotgun, and a map of Washington DC, I try to keep my private life, well, private. How are these kids going to be able to go off to some private place to listen to the voices in their heads, the voices telling them to clean the guns, if they have no privacy?

Without privacy there are no private places!

Or private parts! What will we do without our private parts?

Kaffir Galangal March 9, 2007 12:50 PM

I tend to disagree that the issue is “generational” in terms of age, but more so in terms of state of mind and available time. Many of my recently-retired acquaintances have taken to all of the same things the teenagers are doing. On the other hand, some of us have difficulty finding time to rotate our tires much less writing about it.

Regarding the USA Constitution, I think it involves one’s relation with The Government, more so than one’s relation with private organizations and individuals. But I am not a counselor.

Regarding privacy, I suppose I shouldn’t even be keying in this post: It would be fairly easy for Mr. Schneier to determine exactly who I am, piece together all my posts to his blog, gather up other bits of my Internet residue, and create a fairly good dossier. He won’t, because he has better things to do and the results would be about as interesting as week-old Jell-O.

Pat Cahalan March 9, 2007 12:50 PM

@ ArchonMagnus

“The US Constitution doesn’t explicitly grant the expectation of privacy”

Yes, it does, or rather, you have it backwards.

Amendment X

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The Constitution, as framed by the tenth amendment, therefore explicitly grants powers of preservation of privacy to the people, barring a conflict with those powers invested in the federal/state governments.

In other words, the people have a right to privacy except where the Constitution (or legislation passed in a particular state) has explicitly taken away such a right.

wiredog March 9, 2007 12:59 PM

@Kaffir Galangal
Week old jello, depending on where it’s been kept, could be very interesting to a biologist.

Mike Sherwood March 9, 2007 1:14 PM


Maintaining your privacy doesn’t require that you be invisible. It just means having some control over information you choose to give out. Some people want everyone who will listen to know everything. In contrast, I’m perfectly happy with the majority of people not even knowing if I exist.

My name is common enough that the majority of google matches have nothing to do with me. However, I can give some additional keywords to people who I want to know things to find particular interests. Likewise, there are places I post regularly where no one knows my real name. For all anyone knows, this could be one of them. =)

If Bruce wanted to start dossiers on people, it would probably be much easier than you think. If he emailed me and asked for my resume, I’d be inclined to give it to him. I suspect many of us are in a similar boat since we’re all reading and posting here based on a personal or professional interest in security.

Steve L. March 9, 2007 1:15 PM

Here is a quote from the article:
“This is Jakob’s vision: a place where topless photos are no big deal—but also where everyone can be known, simply by making him- or herself a bit vulnerable.”

This to me is very scary. To me the more someone knows about you (or a system) the more vulnerable you become. If people continue to have these attitudes we will lose all of our privacy in the future.

I suppose it is a trade off — where the more known you become the more vulnerable you become, and vice versa. Scary thought.

Xellos March 9, 2007 1:58 PM

–“I tend to disagree that the issue is “generational” in terms of age, but more so in terms of state of mind and available time.”

I think this is a big part of it. Aside from time issues, the article seems to ignore the fact that there are actually introverted people out there who, no matter their age, would utterly hate doing things like this.

Some of the comments in there, like gal who’s manager at work commented on her blog, make me worry a bit. As an intensely introverted person, I already see issues with the whole “doesn’t like to go out and get drunk with the rest of us” thing. My manager and more than one of my coworkers run interlocking blogs. So what are people like me going to do in ten years when this kind of thing is considered normal?


UNTER March 9, 2007 2:52 PM

So, where returning to the traditional village, where everyone knows what everyone else is doing – except that back then, you could always walk into the bush for some private time. Who’d’a thunk that the global village was not a metaphor, but a nightmarish reality of global small town provincialism?

Erik N March 9, 2007 3:54 PM

The less you post the more likely you’re going to be found by what others have to say about you. By posting your ideas you may keep any embarrassment further down the pile and less likely to surface.

-jc March 11, 2007 6:13 AM

The changing level of privacy should be no problem, each individual needs to be able to control their level of exposedness. If they want to have their every moment broadcast to whoever wants to watch, fine. If they want to keep themselves to themselves fine. What I see as the problem is the privacy requirements [or lack thereoff] seeping across to other people. “Use it or lose it” is all well & good unless my lack of use of privacy causes you to leave privacy.

Greg March 11, 2007 6:40 PM

Week-old Jello would be very interesting to a biologist, because that is the food that is put in a Petri dish to grow bacteria and mold.

C Gomez March 12, 2007 8:07 AM

Let’s at least get the Constitutional Law correct. The right to privacy is presumed and inferred from many of the Amendments, including the 1st, 4th, 5th, 9th, and 10th. It is applied to the states via the 14th.

Anyhow, what is important is that it is probably fair to say that the fact there is some right to privacy is settled law. I think even the most ardent originalists on the Court would agree to that. What is unsettled is what falls under that right.

It’s like any analysis, however. It’s more important how you get classified. If a case comes along and the court decides the matter at issue is a matter of privacy, that elevates it to a Constitutional level and a nearly impossible level of scrutiny applies. If not, then the simpler balancing of interests approach applies, and the law will probably prevail over the right.

I don’t believe the article in question has anything to do with Constitutional Law. It has to do with what we as a society will put up with.

There are plenty of folk who think it’s ridiculous that a criminal may go free because the constable blundered (“got off on a technicality”), but it is the prevention built into the system (only for about the last 60ish years in various forms, I might add… so be careful when you speak of the Founders… unless your Founder is Earl Warren).

What do I think? I think Americans are awfully vociferous about their rights. I have spoken with a great deal of Western Europeans who are fascinated by the rabidity with which most any American will assert their basic rights (even when not being infringed by the government, but say… a corporation). I think American notions of rights and privacy are alive and well and growing as we speak.

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