How private a person are you? I assume I'm fairly average. I don't think I have any appalling, dark secrets that would ruin me if they came to light, but on the other hand there are parts of my life I like to keep to myself, or to share with only a few close friends or family. Some of these things are thoughts, some are letters or other documents, and there are perhaps one or two photographs and mementoes that mean something special that I would rather not share with the world at large. Other private things are pin numbers and codes that safeguard my bank accounts. I certainly don't want people to see them.
Until fairly recently it was simple to keep these private things as they were supposed to be...private. An old shoebox in a cupboard in a bedroom is pretty perfect for that collection of personal oddments that are an adjunct to our lives. A locked filing cabinet, if we feel the need, keeps all but the most determined away from our most private papers, while our thoughts... our thoughts are wholly ours.
And yet...how true is that today? Some of our storage solutions are looking decidedly leaky. Imagine living in a house with a front door so flimsy that it's hardly worth closing, let alone locking. Imagine if that house was in a city where numerous people were simply waiting for you to go out so they could walk in and sift through your life. Imagine having a private conversation with a group of friends and discovering it broadcast on the six o'clock news.
It used to be simple to be a private person, but no longer. Online information gathering has become ubiquitous. We leak our love of woollen socks, concern about our weight, and interest in Bengal cats through our so called private emails, and see the information gathering evidence in the advertisements that pop up by our inboxes. We gaily delete emails, thinking that they are gone forever, but how many people in public life have found that to be patently untrue? And, as emails give way to social networking, our lives are becoming increasingly leaky.
I'm not sure that we ought to become paranoid about these potential intrusions into our lives. After all, those fragments of conversations we read on a forum, twitter or facebook when the wrong button has been pressed don't matter, do they? Aren't they just like overheard bits of conversation on the bus? Well, mostly yes, but not entirely. If you are so minded you can often trace these fragments back to a careless person who doesn't understand all the ins and outs of online privacy. (And let's face it, that's most of us.) You may keep your own sites personal, but does everyone you communicate with do the same? No. Of course not, and so your words can spread like the water from a leaky washing machine.
It used to be so easy. If you wrote something a little indiscreet, not only were few people able to read it, but as time passed it got forgotten. Not on Facebook timeline, which makes it simple to find out what was said in any particular year. Just as we're encouraged to communicate the minutia of our lives, giving our hastily thought through opinions on this and that throughout the day, we also have to be careful of what we say, for we know not who will read it, or what they will do with what they read. Mostly of course nothing; sometimes comments or photographs might be used by 'friends' to embarrass us, which doesn't much matter if we don't have a public reputation to guard, but if we do, then the potential damage could be more serious.
Big Brother may not be watching us, (though he often is through street cameras and the like) but he is constantly collecting data about us. Some of this is government led, but much of it is fuelled by big business, wanting us to buy. And as well as that invasive, annoying advertising there's more. Some prospective employers are now using social networking sites to research interviewees. If you don't shape up on facebook you don't even GET an interview. In the old days a company would have had to employ a private detective to pick up some of the information that is available now in a few clicks. Do we want our employers to do the digital version of sneaking up to our windows and listening to our conversations with friends? Well no, I don't, but many of us are sleepwalking our way into this new world. Why? because social networking is fun, and addictive, and internet security is terribly tedious.
So is there nothing we can do? Will those unkind comments made five years ago remain for ever to embarrass us? Well maybe not. Word from the wise is that there is a law being discussed. It's the 'right to be forgotten'. Well hurray to that. But make no mistake. There is no going back. We can't un-invent digital data collection, and like many inventions it has good uses as well as bad ones. Society is changing, like it has done many times. Not every culture regards privacy to be vitally important. Maybe we should relax, and learn to value our privacy less. After all, most of the comments we make will be like digital pebbles on a vast beach, and will never come back to haunt us,