Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Safety and herd immunity

I gave a talk this week to a group of around 12-15 year olds on internet safety.  I didn’t want to give the obvious talk: stranger danger, not posting nude pictures of themselves and so on.  I figured they’d have heard those talks before.  So I spoke instead about some of the less obvious dangers and how we should be proactive about our safety, we should educate our peers and our parents and we should be internet safety activists.

They weren’t all interested, but one topic that got them talking was the idea that safety is a mutual concern.  I think they understood that idea better than most adults I’ve spoken to about it.

Most people find it quite surprising that one of the biggest vectors of privacy loss is our loved ones.  I don’t know why, it seems quite obvious.  We can be as careful as we like about not revealing personal information, only to have a friend innocently blurt out the details we’ve been trying to conceal.  Our friends don’t necessarily know what we’d like to keep secret, especially because, by their very nature, those things don’t tend to come up much in conversation.  On top of that, our friends usually don’t know all our other friends and might not know about the details and complexities of relationships.  This happened a lot in the early days of social media; people would post outrage in their friends’ spaces, not realising that their friends’ mothers were all following.

But it goes further than that.  I need to come up with new examples, but I really like this one so sorry if you’re sick of it.  Amazon has a gift-wrapping service.  If you choose this option, Amazon will wrap what you bought and send it directly to a recipient with a note.  This is convenient, especially if you’ve left buying a gift to the last minute, but it also throws your loved ones under the bus.

By using the service, you’ve told Amazon that your friend exists, knows you enough for you to buy them a gift, possibly when their birthday is, the kind of things you think they’d like, the things you looked at before deciding on that thing and so on.  If they are also an Amazon customer, you’ve added them to the social network Amazon has built about you and you to theirs. This data is of immense value to Amazon and it all happens without your friend’s consent.  They are paying the price for your convenience.

Of course, that’s just privacy.  There are lots of other aspects to online safety. At the meeting we spoke a little about various forms of bullying and the fact that social networks make it easy for us to become the bullies, even sometimes without realising it.  In his recent book, So you’ve been publicly shamed, Jon Ronson investigates people who have been mobbed on social media, sometimes for making comments that might have been poorly considered but without malicious intent.  Lives have been ruined by people piling on the shaming bandwagon.

It’s our responsibility to consider the safety of our friends and loved ones when we interact with them, but also the safety of people we disagree with in public.  There are often great differences in power and influence on social media and people can be silenced or badly hurt when an influential person disapproves.

These young people hadn’t really considered this, but once I pointed it out it seemed obvious to them and I think it might be the message they took home.

Being safe is a little bit like herd immunity.  It’s a balance between what’s good for the individual and what’s good for everyone.  When we don’t look out for each other’s safety, a kind of tragedy of the commons occurs: a few people benefit greatly (at least temporarily), while everyone else loses.

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