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net.wars: The people perimeter

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 13 April 2012


People with jobs are used to a sharp division between their working lives and their private lives. Even in these times, when everyone carries a mobile phone and may be on call at any moment, they still tend to believe that what they say to their friends is no concern of their employer's. (Freelances tend not to have these divisions; to a much larger extent we have always been "in public" most of the time.)

Wendy M Grossman

These divisions were always less in small towns, where teachers or clergy had little latitude, and where even less-folk would be well advised to leave town before doing anything they wouldn't want discussed in detail. Then came social media, which turns everywhere into a small town and where even if you behave impeccably details about you and your employer may be exposed without your knowledge.

That's all a roundabout way of leading to yesterday's London Tea camp, where the subject of discussion was developing guidelines for social media use by civil servants.

Civil servants! The supposedly faceless functionaries who, certainly at the senior levels, are probably still primarily understood by most people through the fictional constructs of TV shows like Yes, Minister and The Thick of It. All of the 50 or 60 people from across government who attended yesterday have Twitter IDs; they're on Facebook and Foursquare, and probably a few dozen other things that would horrify Sir Humphrey. And that's as it should be: the people administering the nation's benefits, transport, education, and health absolutely should live like the people they're trying to serve. That's how you get services that work for us rather than against us.

The problem with social media is the same as their benefit: they're public in a new and different way. Even if you never identify your employer, Foursquare or the geotagging on Twitter or Facebook checks you in at a postcode that's indelibly identified with the very large government building where your department is the sole occupant. Or a passerby photographs you in front of it and Facebook helpfully tags your photograph with your real name, which then pops up in outside searches. Or you say something to someone you know who tells someone else who posts it online for yet another person to identify and finally the whole thing comes back and bites you in the ass. Even if your Tweets are clearly personal, and even if your page says, "These are just my personal opinions and do not reflect those of my employer", the fact of where you can be deduced to work risks turning anything connected to you into something a - let's call it - excitable journalist can make into a scandal. Context is king.

What's new about this is the uncontrollable exposure of this context. Any Old Net Curmudgeon will tell you that the simple fact of people being caught online doing things their employers don't like goes back to the dawn of online services. Even now I'm sure someone dedicated could find appalling behavior in the Usenet archives by someone who is, 25 years on, a highly respected member of society. But Usenet was a minority pastime; Facebook, Twitter et al are mainstream.

Lots has been written by and about employers in this situation: they may suffer reputational damage, legal liability, or a breach that endangers their commercial secrets. Not enough has been written about individuals struggling to cope with sudden, unwanted exposure. Don't we have the right to private lives? someone asked yesterday. What they are experiencing is the same loss of border control that security engineers are trying to cope with. They call it "deperimeterization", because security used to mean securing the perimeter of your network and now security means coping with its loss. Adding wireless, remote access for workers at home, personal devices such as mobile phones, and links to supplier and partner networks have all blown holes in it.

There is no clear perimeter any more for networks - or individuals, either. Trying to secure one by dictating behavior, whether by education, leadership by example, or written guidelines, is inevitably doomed. There is, however, a very valid reason to have these things: to create a general understanding between employer and employee. It should be clear to all sides what you can and cannot get fired for.

In 2003, Danny O'Brien nailed a lot of this when he wrote about the loss of what he called the "private-intermediate sphere". In that vanishing country, things were private without being secret. You could have a conversation in a pub with strangers walking by and be confident that it would reach only the audience present at the time and that it would not unexpectedly be replayed or published later (see also Don Harmon and Chevy Chase's voicemail). Instead, he wrote, the Net is binary: secret or public, no middle ground.

What's at stake here is really not private life, but *social* life. It's the addition of the online component to our social lives that has torn holes in our personal perimeters.

"We’ll learn a kind of tolerance for the private conversation that is not aimed at us, and that overreacting to that tone will be a sign of social naivete," O'Brien predicted. Maybe. For now, hard cases make bad law (and not much better guidelines) *First* cases are almost always hard cases.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).