Recently, I was having dinner with some friends when the topic of Property Shark came up. My friends, being homeowners, were disturbed that someone could simply go online, type in their address, and find out who the owners were and precisely what they had paid for it. One friend exclaimed, “I don’t want people to know how much money I have!” When I pointed out that the information was public record, and that before Property Shark, anyone could have gone down to City Hall and found the same information, he didn’t care. It still bothered him.
For all our talk of “privacy,” of how it’s being violated all over the place, of how it’s already lost, it’s not even clear what we mean when we say “privacy.” We, as a society, might have agreed that it is good public policy for real estate records to be public so that potential buyers can make sure sellers actually own the property they’re selling. Capitalism can’t thrive if you can’t be sure you own what you own. But when we theoretically made this agreement, we certainly didn’t imagine a world where “public” means available to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Professor Helen Nissenbaum, who recently presented at the DIMACS Data Privacy Workshop, has proposed that we think about “contextual integrity” rather than “privacy.” She argues that it’s more useful to consider what’s appropriate in each context rather than assuming there is a blanket “privacy” standard applicable to all situations.
That makes sense to me. My friend wasn’t arguing that the information shouldn’t be public record. Rather, he wasn’t comfortable with that information being accessed so easily online.
Personally, in the universe of privacy breaches, Property Shark doesn’t seem so problematic, but it’s certainly helpful as the Common Datatrust Foundation works on privacy problems to remember that “privacy” doesn’t have a singular meaning. One of CDTF’s goals for this year is to create some privacy standards for companies and other data collectors that acknowledge that information flow can’t just have a on/off, public/private spigot. It’s obvious that our world and our needs are more complex than that. After all, sometimes it’s hard to know even what we want when we clamor for more privacy. Even my friend, when pressed, admitted that the next time he was looking to buy a house, the first thing he would do is go to Property Shark.