P rivacy: Wide open or shut down?

Tuesday January 22, 2013

Chuck Putney

A number of years ago, when social media first became popular, young people at a Northshire school got ski passes in exchange for pledging not to use alcohol. Several weeks later, many lost those passes when they bragged online about their drinking.

Their defense when this was pointed out? They were just bragging. But, bragging or not, they used social media to send a message about themselves.


It’s easy for people to reveal too much, too quickly. Social media, blogs and e-mail have made it possible to tell virtually everyone what you think within a few moments of your thinking it. There is little reflection about the wisdom of the revelation. You write and hit the "send" button. How many Facebook photos have you seen where the subjects are looking at the camera with the red cheeks and glazed eyes of an energetic party?

It may be that what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas, but what you post on Facebook could be part of your life forever. It’s not just youth who misjudge the risks. Public officials have lost their jobs for inappropriate messages and photos.

Some things are public record, and those arrested in this week’s drug bust found out. We can look up criminal records. Police arrest records and court filings are, technically, public record. Select boards and other public bodies must hold open meetings, publicly announced, and make minutes available. We can find out who owns a property and what it’s worth.

If you apply for a bank loan, chances are the lender can pull up three different ratings of your credit within a few moments along with a list of outstanding loans to other financial institutions.

The other end of the privacy spectrum, however, has gotten more and more restrictive. Federal law now puts tight controls on personal health care information. Health care providers can’t tell who they have seen or why. This protection is particularly important in case employers want to discriminate based on health status.

The same is true for educational institutions and employers. Other than confirming employment or enrollment status, they can’t say anything else. It may be personnel policy or part of a union agreement. There are times we really want to learn more about people and their actions, but the law doesn’t allow it. Police agencies may have more latitude, but most of the time what they are able to report on are the incidents in which they have been called in and someone has been arrested.

Over and over again, thanks to limits on access to employment, health and education records, it turns out that the most damaging information about people comes from their own loose lips or fingers. They post items, they talk to reporters, they call in to radio programs, they go on reality programs or otherwise bare their souls, and their butts, for all to see.

Charles R. Putney is a consultant to nonprofit organizations. He is a resident of Bennington.


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