Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Despite Facebook, privacy is far from dead

By Amitai Etzioni, Special to CNN
updated 2:27 PM EDT, Thu August 16, 2012
Amitai Etzioni says Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg says privacy is obsolete, but has made concessions on the issue.
Amitai Etzioni says Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg says privacy is obsolete, but has made concessions on the issue.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Critics say the rise of Facebook coincides with the death of privacy
  • Amitai Etzioni says privacy is better protected now than in earlier eras
  • He says documents are encrypted, and laws prohibit invading medical privacy
  • Etzioni: Those who use Facebook should be aware of the privacy they're surrendering

Editor's note: Amitai Etzioni is professor of international relations and director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University. He is the author of "The Limits of Privacy."

Washington (CNN) -- Whatever the outcome of Facebook's public offering of stock, the social network has already enriched quite a few — as well as famously offered many hundreds of millions of people a new virtual social world. Yet critics claim that Facebook is hastening the demise of privacy, which as the cliché goes, is already on life support.

Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy says that "Facebook has purposefully worked to erode the concept of privacy by disingenuously claiming users want to share all of their personal information." Human Rights First CEO Elisa Massimino argues, "Facebook's privacy policies are prohibitively confusing, make it difficult for users to protect personal information, expose to disclosure information users believe is private, and are changed without adequate warning or consent from users."

Mark Zuckerberg has responded to such criticisms in two rather different ways. On the one hand he argued that privacy is an obsolete social norm, echoing the (then) CEO of Sun Microsystems who stated, "You have zero privacy anyway. ... Get over it." On the other hand, Facebook has improved its privacy settings, for example, by allowing users to "untag" themselves from previous posts and giving them greater control over what information can be accessed by third-party apps.

Amitai Etzioni
Amitai Etzioni

From the viewpoint of privacy advocates such as New York Law School professor James Grimmelmann, Simon Davies of the UK-based Privacy International, Dany Nativel in France, and Malte Spitz in Germany, privacy is already on its last legs.

Facebook merely adds to the major inroads made by the CCTV cameras that are ubiquitous in many cities around the globe, along with surveillance satellites, tracking devices, spy malware and, most recently, drones used not for killing terrorists but for scrutinizing spaces heretofore considered private, like our backyards.

Corporations keep detailed dossiers on what we purchase. No wonder privacy advocates argue that we live in a surveillance society and privacy "ended with Facebook."

Opinion: 'Facebook parenting' is destroying our children's privacy

Actually if you look beyond all these alarmed pronouncements, you will find that:

(a) Many of these devices are applied to public spaces, where it is unclear how much of a right to privacy we have in the first place. They do what a police officer does, only using technology instead. In free societies, in which this debate largely rages, when the police do spy on someone's home, personal phone or car, the courts still generally hold that the authorities need a warrant — that is, they need to show a judge that they have reasonable evidence to assume the person has committed a crime. Under those conditions, privacy was not protected from the day the Constitution was written.

(b) Our communications are now much more secure from prying eyes and ears — that is, much more private — than they were before the cyberage. The main reason is that most of our sensitive online transactions — financial, medical, etc. — are encrypted, often automatically. The default option for Gmail user accounts also encrypts communications between users' browsers and Google's servers. The NSA is surely able to read encrypted communications, but few, if any, others can. Compare today's messaging to those that were made by letters (that could be readily steamed open and resealed), faxes and telegrams, and you see how much more private communications have become.

(c) These days, our information is routinely stored in computers and protected by passwords. Those, especially when we are lazy (and use — as a surprising number of people do — 123456, abc123, or "password" ) or do not bother to reset them regularly, can be broken. However, most times they hold. Compare this storage of information to what it was before the cyberage, when it was kept in paper files in drawers and locked offices, which often could be opened with a letter opener or even a credit card, not to mention a burglar's tools.

(d) Before 2000, the most intimate and private information, medical information, could be bought and sold. Health insurance companies could disclose information to employers, corporations profited as clearinghouses of buyers and sellers of medical records, and pharmaceutical companies used patient information to more successfully market prescription drugs to individuals. In 2000, a new federal right to medical privacy was established in the United States. Those who share such information now, without proper authorization, can be tried as criminals. No wonder now there are very few reports of violations of medical privacy.

Indeed, if you read closely the various alarmist articles about the death of privacy, you soon will note that many deal either with public spaces or with hypotheticals. They claim that police could abuse these tools, might use them to ill effect and so on. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, criticized the use of drones by law enforcement by arguing that such use "could eventually eliminate the privacy Americans have traditionally enjoyed in their movements and activities."

Facebook has been caught in the same crossfire between strong privacy advocates and the social benefits it generates for hundred of millions who use it to communicate with their families and friends, close and not so close. It improved its privacy settings, though it still takes a considerable amount of effort to set them at the specific level one prefers.

However, if Facebook users choose to ignore the risk to their privacy when they log in to this domain, which is known for its openness, their complaints must be taken with a grain of salt. The same holds for the argument that privacy in general is on its way out. It surely faces new challenges in the cyberage, but also unprecedented protections.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amitai Etzioni.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT