The Day Privacy Died

I went last week to see The Social Network, the movie about the beginnings of Facebook.  I’m a Facebook devotee.  I think it’s a great way to get information out.  I’m actually at a point where I need to create a fan page because I am approaching the “maximum friends.”  That really makes me feel good, but what is the cost of that feeling?

I’ve been telling my own children for years, “There is nothing private anymore.”  Many parents join in the chorus, “Take those drunk pictures off your Facebook page, you future employers might see them.”  And so it goes.  The technology that gives us great communication can kill our privacy, too.

Bill Gates wrote in his book, The Road Ahead, about how even in the days of the Gutenberg press, it was used to print the Bible and racy books of the time.  Great advances in communication have great applications as well as frivolous ones.

Last week, amid the stories of breached security at Facebook, MySpace and Google there was also a horrible story of breached privacy and trust in Spaulding County, Georgia.

In July, Dayna Kempson-Schacht, 23, of Monticello, Ga., was killed in a one-car crash.  It appears she lost control, tried to correct, crashed into a tree and died on impact. A Spaulding County firefighter used his cell phone to record and narrates a video of the crash scene and the victim.

What happened next was unclear.  It appears the firefighter shared the video by text message with another firefighter and then the video was shared with others at a restaurant and bar in a nearby town. One of the people who received the video recognized the victim and called her parents.

Local TV stations did not air the video due to its graphic nature and the parents of the young mother of two felt disrespected by the very people who are supposed to protect them. Her parents, Jeffrey and Lucretia Kempson, thought their darkest day was the day their daughter died, but it has been replaced by the day they found out a video of their daughter’s fatally wounded body was being shown around town by a firefighter who took it on his personal cell phone.

The firefighter is on leave with pay pending an investigation. Officials are not commenting but this man should never work in a job of trust again. If I could “run him out of town on a rail,” I would.

You might say, “What does this have to do with Facebook breaches, Google or social networking? Taking a cell phone video at a crash site has nothing to do with these sites.”

However, these sites go largely free of interference because of the perception of privacy.  What you post will only go to your “friends,” so what does it matter. Day after day, we see examples of why that should matter.  Finally, how close was that video from being an attachment to a text message to being an upload to a social networking site?  Thankfully, we will never know in this case, but it is a matter of time before this or something worse gets posted and goes viral.

Last week, we discovered numerous Facebook applications were leaking user data to third-party companies. A similar leak happened at MySpace.  Then late last week, Google street view “inadvertently” collected personal data from unsecured wireless networks.

This is the age we live it.  Some might say the answer is regulation.  But I don’t know if we can put that genie back in the bottle or we should want to. 

I believe it’s much more cultural.  Something as “old school” as Ginni Thomas leaving a voicemail for Anita Hill goes round the world because of how Ms. Hill handled it.  No amount of regulation would have stopped that.  There was nothing wrong with the message that Mrs. Thomas left, but it was private and Anita Hill chose to make it public.

My grandmother used to say, “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t be ashamed of seeing on the front page of the newspaper.”  Good advice, but today no one reads the newspaper.  So the advice is an unreachable standard of “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to see on Facebook, Google, and MySpace or attached to a text message gone round the world.”  Can any of us live up to that standard?

So is privacy dead?  If you plan on having one of those smart phones or a laptop at your disposal 24/7 then, sadly, it is.  But the answer is not more regulation, it is common sense and decorum and social boundaries.  They may be dead, too.

So beware of the wonders of Facebook and Google.  They give us so much but what is the cost.   The jury is still out on that but this may be the day that privacy died.

By the way, you can contact me on Facebook and Twitter most anytime, for now.