Have We No Shame? Thoughts on the Death of Privacy

I’m just teaching my son about the concept of privacy.

How it’s polite to close the bathroom door when you’re in there doing your business. How certain aspects of one’s life should stay within particular conversational contexts.

Like, his grade one teacher doesn’t need to know that Dad turns into a gas bomb when he eats onions.

Oops, but neither do you. And there’s my point.

Too often people seem to drop the concept of privacy, even self-dignity, when online. They share too much. Say too much.

Browsing Flickr the other day, I happened upon a photo of a prominent local public servant responsible for the members of a sensitive social constituency. She’s naked in the bath.

That seemed odd to me: a woman who is responsible for the safety and security of the most vulnerable members of our population has permitted a nude photo of herself to be published online.

Granted, it’s an artsy shot, all black and white and grainy, with the sensitive regions of her body cleverly obscured.

But, all the same, she’s naked in the bath.

Now before you dismiss me as a prude, I’d like to state that there’s nothing wrong with a nude photo, per se.

It’s more the question of the context of the image and the associations that can be made with the subject.

Like, Brad Pitt in the bath, that sort of makes sense. Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the bath, not so much. (Although if someone could dig the latter picture up I’m sure it would become very useful in the coming months.)

In other words, what is the intent of the image, and what happens to it when we remove it from its context?

In this case, the subject holds a very public office in a government department that deals with what is to my mind a core social issue in contemporary society.

Her constituents view her as a role model.

What happens to the image of her in the bath when it is taken from its seemingly innocent perch in a Flickr photostream and is, say, shared via email, or posted on an office bulletin board?

It would be very easy for any of her constituents to view and then misinterpret how this individual has permitted herself to be publicly presented.

They may take it as a general validation of a sensitive act such a posing nude for a camera.

More to the point, though, this individual has opened herself to public scrutiny based on her conduct. I’m sure she wouldn’t appreciate it if I published a link to the pic here (so I won’t), but that just raises the question as to why she permitted the image to be posted online in the first place.

As one commenter on the image wonders, “Cute – but if someone took this shot of me – no matter how good I looked – I would be sooooooo worried about what my mother would think.”

Never mind her mom, what about her current boss, or a prospective employer? Not a favourable supplement to a well written resume.

The image rubs against a recent victory for Canada’s Privacy Commissioner. Jennifer Stoddart’s office recently took Facebook to task for several privacy-related issues.

Central among the Commissioner’s concerns was how personal information is shared with third parties and what Facebook does with that information when people leave the site.

It was an important development in terms of better enabling Canadian Facebook users to control and protect their information online.

Yet countless thousands of us, including the nude public servant above, recklessly share information about ourselves that is generally unsuitable for public consumption.

It’s as though we, the people, are letting our personal dignity slide online, even as our government fights to build an infrastructure designed to help us better control our information and defend ourselves.

It all makes me wonder: are the days of privacy over? Are we all, so to speak, now willing to leave the bathroom door open, even when strangers are in the house?

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, September 11, 2009.