How do we define privacy when our lives are online?

With a previously private and ephemeral social network like Snapchat storing data, Ayesha Almazroui asks where we set the boundaries of privacy.

Are social media networks changing the way we think about privacy? Aaron Harris / Reuters
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Snapchat created an uproar online last week when the social network updated its terms and conditions. It had long defined itself by the way chats, photos and videos posted on the platform would delete themselves within a few seconds of being viewed. The new conditions included granting itself the right to “host, store, use, display, reproduce, modify, adapt, edit, publish, create derivative works from, publicly perform, broadcast, distribute, syndicate, promote, exhibit, and publicly display” any shared content provided by users.

Given that many of its users were attracted by the idea of no permanent record of their communications being retained, this has triggered concerns about privacy. Opponents expressed their discontent on Twitter using the hashtag #SnapchatChangeYourTerms, warning others about the potential consequences of posting on it.

Snapchat issued a statement clarifying that despite needing to claim “a broad licence to use the content”, private images would remain private and would continue to be deleted from their servers as soon as they’re viewed. Only images that are public would be used by the company, it stated, including those submitted to the Live Stories feature.

The platform has the right to set its own terms and conditions and consumers have the choice whether to use it. But the problem is that, as we all know, many people don’t even bother to skim through a company’s privacy policy before hitting the “agree” box.

What is even more concerning is that many people don’t even care if some of our personal content is viewed by strangers. One reason for this is that the popularity of social media networks plays a major role in influencing our ideas of privacy. People now seem more comfortable sharing online information about themselves and details that were once deemed private are now easily and instantly broadcast through social networks to unknown receivers.

This prompts the question of what privacy really means and why we should care about it.

In philosophical discussions, most notably by Aristotle, the concept of privacy focused on the distinction between the public sphere of political activity and the private sphere associated with family and domestic life. Privacy also has broad historical roots in anthropological and sociological discussions and debate, about how it’s viewed and how extensively it’s valued and preserved in various cultures. Throughout modern history, the notion has been discussed frequently in the context of mass surveillance and the era of big data.

This complexity means there is no single definition. While it can be seen as focused on the control over information about oneself, it could also be defined as a broader concept required for human dignity or its crucial role in interpersonal relationships or intimacy. People generally tend to value keeping some information free from the interference of others.

When it comes to Emirati society, privacy is highly valued, but not so much individually as in a collective form. For example, it’s socially frowned upon to talk about family affairs in front of outsiders. Married couples are not supposed to talk about their private life even in front of their parents and siblings. The general rule is that what happens inside the house should stay inside the house.

Like other countries, we have laws to protect personal privacy. In fact, they can be stricter than the global norm. For example, it’s against the law here to post content about other people online without their consent. Social media users must not tag other users without taking their permission first. Posting a picture of someone else’s car with visible plate number could be against the law.

With this focus on privacy, it’s surprising to see many people exhibiting their private lives on social media networks, not only in front of their friends, but even in front of strangers.

Snapchat, for example, gave people a false sense of security as it promised to keep their chats, photos and videos not just private but also ephemeral. In reality, the company acknowledges it cannot stop people taking screenshots or saving images by using other applications.

A friend pointed out an interesting paradox in which some people keep their passwords secret from their spouses on the grounds of privacy while sharing details about their private lives with the world.

In the end, our personal choices determine how much information we want to share. But while we can – to some extent – control our personal data, it’s worth noting that the evolution of technology has made it very difficult for users to meaningfully control their personal data and make informed choices about them.

Social pressure to engage in online networking makes it even harder to protect our privacy. Is staying offline really an option these days?

On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui