Are your Facebook photos set up to be public or private? When you post pictures of your kids or spouse on Facebook, are those pictures made available on image search sites? Are creepy weirdos finding those pictures using Google, Bing or Yahoo image search and then reposting them on creepy weirdo Web sites?
When you post using Google's mobile Buzz app, are your tweets going to only the people following you, or the whole world?
Is your cell phone's GPS location feature on or off? If it's on, is any service, company or individual person able to get access to that data?
I'd be willing to bet that more than 90% of users can't answer those questions. But even the most skillful users often can't know how much privacy is being violated.
For example, we know that Google's computers read all of our e-mails every day. Special software scans the words we send and receive so Google can post ads next to the messages related to the conversations. Do Google employees ever read those e-mails, maybe as examples for research or marketing? How would we know if they did? And if we trust Google (and I do think Google is a trustworthy company), is the U.S. government reading your e-mail? How would we know if they did? And if you trust the U.S. government, is the Chinese government reading your e-mails? Hackers? Blackmailers? Your employer? How would we know if they did?
It's not that you don't know who's reading your e-mail. It's that you can't know. You will never know.
As Scott McNealy famously said 11 years ago: "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." But it's not that simple anymore. He was talking more about concern over compromised privacy by companies and governments, which could potentially somehow use your private data for purposes you don't approve of. But now, thanks to social services that didn't exist when McNealy uttered his inconvenient truth, the whole privacy issue has exploded.
We still have to worry about governments and companies, but now we must be concerned about employers, criminals and even family members.
Here are five examples of the many weird new ways privacy can be violated.
1. Facebook photo tagging. You're a respectable citizen, a pillar of the community. You're active in the chamber of commerce, and local charity organizations. You're a senior officer in your company, and a church elder. Your kids think you're perfect. Then your old high-school buddy posts a picture of you vomiting shirtless at a debauched punk rave in the 80s with a cigarette in one hand, a bottle of Jack Daniels in the other and a purple mohawk on your head. He tags you, which puts that photo on your Facebook Wall. Now that photo has been shared with your mother, your kids, your boss, your colleagues. Once seen, it can't be unseen. If anyone copied the photo, it's now "out there." Forget about ever running for public office.
2. Google Buzz people harvesting. When you fire up Google Buzz on your iPhone, Android phone or -- soon enough, presumably -- any smartphone, and hit the "Nearby" button, you get a list of posts from strangers listed in order of which is closest. Their usernames can lead to their profiles, which probably enables contact via e-mail (like Craigslist, e-mail addresses can be private, but anyone can still send e-mail through Profiles). What's to stop any business from firing up Buzz every day and harvesting contacts of people who come to the neighborhood?