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October 06, 2005

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» Symmetrical Privacy and Musings on Site Meter from Concurring Opinions
Lior Strahilevitz (law, Chicago), has an interesting post at the Chicago Faculty Blog on what he calls “symmetrical privacy.” He begins by discussing Friendster, a social networking website where individuals post profiles and look up the profiles of o... [Read More]

» Symmetrical Privacy and Musings on Site Meter from Concurring Opinions
Lior Strahilevitz (law, Chicago), has an interesting post at the Chicago Faculty Blog on what he calls “symmetrical privacy.” He begins by discussing Friendster, a social networking website where individuals post profiles and look up the profiles of o... [Read More]

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Bruce

On Friendster: Ouch. On your proposal: That's really interesting. I don't think we'd want a rule requiring symmetric disclosure for all information providers, e.g. Google (although Google's not completely anonymous either, at least where someone is reading their site's server logs). Credit reports seem like a good example (there is already 15 U.S.C. 1681g(a)(3), but it could be made more user-friendly); and perhaps marketing data collected and sold by businesses, but that seems much more difficult to implement.

ellen

I am concerned that applying privacy symmetry to Internet-based activities might create a chilling effect, discouraging use and eliminating one of the greatest advantages of the Internet: free access to information. (How many of us would continue Googling people if a notification system were in place?) In fact, some of my friends have given up Friendster entirely because they no longer trust the service and are afraid that the viewing information might again be made public at a later date.

On the other hand, it is possible that the effects of such a system would be minimal. For example, it is well-known that personal websites and blogs are often equipped with the capacity to trace IP addresses to specific locations. Despite knowledge of this tracking feature, curiosity wins out for many of us and we still click away.

anon

I don't know, ellen, does that really "discourage use"? the "use" it discourages, frankly, is the somewhat creepy use of chasing down exes or whatever. even as it originally existed, friendster always allowed your employer or professor or whoever to view your information, and that didn't stop you from using the service. why is it more disturbing for someone to know you've looked at them than to have someone you don't know about looking at you? one explanation might be that you created a minimal, nonembarassing profile (notice you have to join to use the service). but obviously many people created more substantive profiles (or else what would be the point of stalking them?) so i'm not sure how much chilling there would be, or how much we should worry about it. then again, it's only friendster...wonder how many hits lior's getting.

jason

actually, a simple form of symmetrical privacy has existed since the internet's inception in the form of details regarding site traffic and the location of individual viewers. Though not as revealing as Friendster's "Who's Viewed Me" function, this simple form of symmetrical privacy has certainly not had any apparent "chilling effect" on use.

ellen

Anon, the discouraged use I am considering is not that of making a Friendster profile-- obviously members are aware that anyone can access their information. The "who's viewed me" option might discourage users from looking at exes/old friends/random acquaintances (assuming users distrust the new privacy viewing option). And creepy or not, isn't that one of the major purposes of the service in the first place?

Jason, I agree with you-- that's the point I tried to suggest at the end of my original post. I do wonder, however, how much information the typical Internet user thinks is being/can be gathered about her. I wouldn't be surprised if less people know about this capability than we'd think. Of course, some personal web sites post IP details. In those cases, viewers definitively know that their information has been logged. It would be interesting to compare the traffic volume of such sites to comparable ones that do not make the information-gathering explicit. My guess is that the latter has more repeat viewers (aka "stalkers" :)) than the former. After all, for websites of the latter type, even users who know that websites generally log IP addresses may hold out hope that the webmaster of each particular site does not know how/bother to convert those details to a real location. Of course, this is all highly speculative...

slevmore

I'd prefer to think of symmerical privacy as a practice or requirement such that if you can or do invade my privacy, then I have a symmetrical ability to invade yours. You caa interrupt my dinner with a phone call and I can interrupt yours, while a telemarketer can interrupt mine in a manner that I cannot match. This is one reason telemarketing is unpopular. The Friendster move seems more like one of transparency, and perhaps the question is how far we want to take it. A credit card company can simply say "we automatically acquire background information on everyone who has a social secutity number" and that may not be quite the same thing as saying they used the information. Confessing to a practice of making universal inquiries seems to satisfy the transparency requirement, but it does not really get at the issue. I might like to know who has eavesdropped on my conversations (then again I might not). That is more useful than either having the right to eavesdrop on my eavesdroppers (symmetry) or knowing that X eavesdrops on everyone (transparency). Professor Strahilevitz's observation gets at these distinctions. Friendster would have taken its users by even greater surprise if it had been entirely transparent, and not just to those who were viewed. It might have shown the world where everyone went to look.

Bill McGeveran

In the increasingly networked world, another problematic consequence of a symmetrical notification system would be a form of information overload. Depending on how broadly you define "snooping", giving individuals notice of each instance of such "snooping" might well involve informing them of multiple daily transactions. Every time anyone looks up anything about you? That could be a lot... And as a result, the notifications could simply add further clutter to the vast quantity of incoming communications many of us process constantly.

A second problem, exemplified by the credit reports mentioned by Bruce. Have you looked at yours lately? Sure, they tell you who requested your data. But mine reveal requests from multiple vaguely-named and unfamiliar entities. In some cases I was able to figure out who they were based on what I knew already -- I applied for a store credit card a few months ago, so that must explain the request around that time from "First National Trust" (or whatever). Others, I still don't know who they are, and the burden of figuring it out would be huge. So true symmetry would require that I know more than just the name of the institution that now knows a great deal about me.

Still, it certainly is a thought-provoking idea...

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