Privacy Violations

A little known fact that I hadn’t even shared with my wife until today: as I finished my undergraduate degree, I was faced with a tough decision--should I go to graduate school in psychology or in library science? Obviously, psychology won out. But why was I seriously considering library science in 1986? Well, I worked happily in libraries for six years. I love books. Many of my friends were librarians. But I also really liked doing searches—helping the occasional student find a book or a reference using the massive tomes on the reference shelf or by looking through the subject drawer of the card catalogue. To this day I still like performing information searches. It’s sort of a hobby for me to spend hours hunting down some reference or finding out what I can about an old photograph.

This love of searches sometimes includes learning more about people I meet in my everyday life. From time to time, I’ll meet someone at a conference or discover a new Twitter feed, and I’ll spend an hour or two learning all I can about that person using Google or other search methods. It occurs to me, however, that this could be considered a violation of that person’s privacy. That is, if I find old blog posts or that person’s instagram feed—-information that is publicly available without the use of stealing passwords, etc.—-perhaps it is still a privacy violation because the person didn’t invite me to read through their online life. Is something they blogged about, say their favorite episode of “The O.C.”, eight years ago ok for me to read today? What if I find an abandoned Tumblr feed or their thoughts about an ex-boyfriend from 2002? Some sites even easily provide information about a current residential address right from the Google search.

Ever since the internet became a “thing”, I have just assumed that anything that appears there that doesn’t require a password is public information and therefore not private. But is it?