Privacy, personas and consent

Followers of this blog will instantly recognise the three things in the title… I’ve gone on about them often enough. Some may be wondering if (or indeed how) I can have more to say. Well, there’s always another twist, another perspective, so here goes.

Usually, I’m promoting “personas” as a useful privacy tool: that is, if you can segregate and selectively reveal different aspects of your online identity, you can probably manage your privacy better. The people who know you as a “soccer mom”, for instance, don’t necessarily know that you’re also an Army reservist… and why should they – unless you tell them?

It’s that ‘consent’ aspect which I’d like to take a fresh look at today. After all, I usually use an example like the one above: where the person concerned wishes, for whatever reason, to separate one aspect of their life from another. However, let’s look at the flip side: hypothetically, let’s assume you have a university academic who is known to his students as a specialist in IT law, a lecturer and in some cases perhaps a PhD supervisor. In other words, he has a pretty clearly-bounded, if multi-faceted ‘persona’ as a ‘professor’. Let’s call him Professor Dent for the heck of it; I. Dent, of course, because the Prof. has an academic and practical interest in questions of online identity and privacy.

Naturally, Prof. Dent tends to see a correspondingly bounded ‘persona’ of his students, delineated by their areas of study, their essays, their behaviour in lectures and so on.

Now, these days it would by no means be considered unusual if those students were also socially active online, in the course of which they might exchange news, photos, gossip etc and even comments about their studies (hey, it could happen…). Prof. Dent, being an up-to-date sort of academic, has accounts on MyBook, FaceSpace and so on, and some of his students even reckon they can “friend” him without losing too much credibility. In fact, he turns out to be (rather endearingly) a huge Dr Who fan… though of course in his case that really means Jon Pertwee, not these rock-star Johnny-come-latelies.

However, the University authorities find out about Prof. Dent’s online presence and are not at all happy. Not because of any of the content, I hasten to add… there’s nothing in the least bit prurient or reprehensible to be found there. No – they just don’t think it’s appropriate for the Prof to be generating this discourse, accessible to people who are ‘supposed’ to see him in his professorial persona only.

So, here we have rather the converse of the original problem. Rather than keep specific personas strictly segregated, Prof. Dent has decided that his professorial persona might actually benefit from being made slightly more multi-dimensional. Those of you who originally followed this blog’s precursor on blogs.sun.com might see reflections of Sun’s enlightened ‘blog anything’ corporate policy in that. But Prof. Dent is essentially being told, not only that he must segregate his various personas, but that he must not continue with his online presence.

In other words, regardless of the privacy and persona aspects, his consent is being over-ridden.

Of course, all this is purely academic (ha ha): after all, what University would be daft enough to think that such a policy was (a) a good idea or (b) practical. What’s more, I think I would have reservations about trying to impose it on a bunch of academics – especially IT-literate lawyers. Thank goodness it’s all hypothetical.

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One thought on “Privacy, personas and consent

  1. thejohnbrian says:

    Thanks for this Robin. I genuinely enjoyed your writing here and our brief LinkedIn Group encounter "in the cloud." Cheers,Brian

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