Expectations of Privacy in the Information Age Take a moment to list all of the personal information you voluntarily gave out this year. So, how much privacy do you really have? Scholars James Rule and Kathryn Montgomery join Liane Hansen to mark the year's end with a conversation about privacy — how we define it, how we safeguard it and how new generations view it.
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Expectations of Privacy in the Information Age

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Expectations of Privacy in the Information Age

Expectations of Privacy in the Information Age

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We want you to take a moment now to remember all of the personal information you voluntarily gave out this year: name, address, telephone and credit card numbers, library records, flight information, financial transactions, cameras recording your movements and your purchases.

You are a walking databank. So how much privacy do you really have? What information can be considered truly private? If you post your personal life on a Web site, are you protected if it's used without your knowledge or consent? Provocative questions we pose now to our guests in the studios of KQED in San Francisco.

First, James Rule is the author of "Privacy in Peril." He's a scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society at UC Berkeley.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. JAMES RULE (Author, "Privacy in Peril"): It's great to be with you.

HANSEN: And welcome, as well, to Kathryn Montgomery. She is the author of "Generation Digital," and she's also a professor at American University School of Communication, and she heads the center's Youth, Media and Democracy project.

Welcome to you, Kathryn.

Professor KATHRYN MONTGOMERY (American University School of Communication; Author, "Generation Digital"): Thanks very much. Glad to be here.

HANSEN: James Rule, let me start with you. Given the laundry list of personal info I just recited, how much of our private lives are actually public?

Mr. RULE: Much more than we think. You mentioned things that we voluntarily relinquish, information that we voluntarily give up about ourselves: the Web site visits, supermarket choices. We're constantly generating information about ourselves that we may not realize we're generating. But as in many other cases, we don't ultimately know what fate that information may have.

HANSEN: Kathryn Montgomery, I want to bring you in the conversation. On the whole, the young generation is very technology savvy, very comfortable providing private information in a public forum, the Web sites such as Facebook and YouTube, as well as the blogs. You know, we used to write a diary when we were kids and we kept it hidden and locked. And maybe we moved on to handwritten journals when we were in college.

But today, there's a proliferation of webcams. So how do you think this generation and more important, future generations perceive the whole idea of privacy?

Prof. MONTGOMERY: Well, they are not growing up with the same sense of privacy that perhaps I grew up with. And for that reason, I think we need to help them understand what privacy is. And to make more conscious decisions about what they share. I think there's also a role, though, for the marketers who are purposely encouraging young people to provide all these information. I think there's also a role for government agencies to play in creating to guidelines on how people's privacy needs to be protected.

Mr. RULE: One thing that Kathryn said that I utterly concur with is that people's sense of privacy changes enormously from generation to generation, and nowadays, I think even from year to year. In many ways, our lives have gotten more private and that we're not obliged to share information with our immediate neighbors or communities as much as we were perhaps a generation or two ago.

On the other hand, we live in this peculiar world where it comes naturally to us to provide to distant bureaucracies like the people who do your health care administration, information - extremely personal information so sensitive that you wouldn't want to even discuss it with your most intimate partners. So the idea of what is private and what reasonably can be kept secret changes, and it changes in tandem with our ability to defend our claims, to keep certain kinds of information to ourselves.

HANSEN: I wondered about that since privacy tends to be lost into small doses. Do we notice what we're giving up?

Mr. RULE: I don't think we do. And often when we do, we're not served up with choices in a forum that make it meaningful to choose a more private world. If everyone is losing his or her personal information when they board an airplane, or when they shop at the supermarket, when doing routine things, no single personal act of resistance is going to do much good. I think the only meaningful solution is to the big, kind of historic questions about the future of privacy.

You have to come through some kind of collective decision-making and some collective action in the form of legislation, court decisions or other policy measures.

HANSEN: Kathryn Montgomery, is there a line to be crossed?

Prof. MONTGOMERY: Well, I think there is a line, but I think that line needs to be defined more clearly. I believe we're really at a very important historical moment when it is time to have a public debate about privacy - how we can ensure that privacy is protected in the future.

I think many of us have become a little bit passive and complacent about it. But there are lines that will need to be drawn, in particular, in the digital marketplace, where certain kinds of information maybe should not be collected at all. If you go online and use a search engine to look up symptoms of a disease that you think you might have, that is right now considered fair game for the search engines and for the marketing companies who work with the search engines. And that information is collected. You go to a library. That librarian is not going to follow you around with a marketer on his arm to see what books you're looking up or what you're looking up in an encyclopedia. But in the case of online, all of that, right now, is fair game.

HANSEN: What information do you think should be protected as private no matter what?

Mr. RULE: One thought I've often had is that it would be a wonderful thing in America if Americans had property right over the commercial use of information about themselves. So the selling and trading of information about one's self could not go ahead unless one formally relinquish one's right over that data. It would be like mineral rights or water rights and real property.

But if the legal status of personal information - both for adults and children - were changed so that it were simply illegal to trade in personal data - to buy it, to sell it, to exchange it for value - without the informed permission of the individual, then the power relations between the users of personal data and the ordinary folks like us would immediately shift.

HANSEN: James Rule is the author of "Privacy in Peril," published by Oxford University Press. And he's a scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society at the University of California, Berkeley.

Kathryn Montgomery is a professor at American University School of Communication. She's the author of "Generation Digital," published by MIT Press. And she's the head of the center's Youth, Media and Democracy Project. They joined us from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco.

Thank you very, very much for this discussion.

Prof. MONTGOMERY: Thank you.

Mr. RULE: It's been a pleasure to be here.

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