Determinism and privacy

I’ve been thinking about determinism lately, and wondering whether or not it matters for privacy. Specifically, if the audience of shared information is non-deterministic, are there circumstances in which that information should be considered anything other than public?

Twitter has this little feature I just learned about (though, as usual, I’m late to the party – it’s been here since 2008 at least). It turns out that if you begin a tweet with an @reply, only people who follow both you and the person to whom you are @replying are fed that tweet in their stream. I haven’t tested, and can’t easily find a description, of whether the tweet is visible to everyone who clicks on your profile, or only to those jointly following both participants. Regardless, it’s an interesting feature.

Similarly GMail Chat enables asymmetrical relationships. You can hide a GMail chat user without blocking them, in which case they can still see your chat status. I’ve made a lot of interesting choices with respect to this feature over the years; most commonly I hide people who I perceive to be invading my chat list, but whom I don’t want to outright block for fear of being rude. A few weeks or months later, I’ll run into one of these people or they will ping me unexpectedly and reference a recent chat status, which never fails to freak me out just a little. “I didn’t realize they could see my chat status!” But of course, I should have, since I made the decision to hide – not block – them from my chat list in the first place.

Both these features have a bit of non-determinism built in. It’s possible to share information not quite publicly, but to a contained audience that is perceived by the user as non-deterministic. My initial reaction upon hearing about the Twitter feature I describe above was, what an interesting privacy feature. Similarly my reaction as a user to my own use of Chat has at times been the feeling that my privacy was invaded. Which begs the question: does determinism matter to privacy, and/or should non-deterministic audiences be assumed to be public?

It’s gotten me thinking about another angle, as well. Some have used privacy to describe the feeling of having one’s physical space invaded. One translation of this, which I’ve heard discussed though not at length, is the online translation to information feeds. Is it an invasion of my privacy if unwanted information surfaces in my feed? Say, spam, for example? This was of course the motivation for hiding individuals from my chat list – I didn’t desire distant connections surfacing in my chat list inside my email client. Similarly, I would guess it’s a large part of why the Twitter feature is so useful – if a conversation is taking place between two users, it’s probably annoying at best to see only one half of that conversation. But do either of these scenarios invoke privacy?

I realize this is a semi-unfinished stream of consciousness but the thoughts are nascent at best in my mind. I’m interested to hear your comments and thoughts – perhaps someone has written about this before?

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One Response to Determinism and privacy

  1. I have used twitter’s lists as a “preference” selection between myself and others. I am still trying to formalize this thought on my own blog.

    Here’s the general idea…

    Assumptions: Two+ accounts( you &/or your “Avatar”/”Strawman” and/or Others )

    Set a definition as a hashtag (e.g. #Real #Virtual #Real&Virtual), and use the same description for all definitions

    The difference between any one list value from & to you (in dB, for reasons I am still having trouble explaining) gives you a value that can be tracked as a specific social metrics (by hashtag)

    e.g.\sawyeriii\real vs\sawyeriii1776\virtual

    Consider using this as a constant metric for prefered privacy to every connection personal to another (e.g. #Private #Public #Private&Public)

    Remember anyone who has not “voted” by following either choice, has opted out (0 data points), the process of “voting” even for both positions, is still useful data.


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