I was having dinner with my boyfriend the other night, and we were discussing the WikiLeaks scandal and its founder, Julian Assange.
“It doesn’t matter,” he told me, “Privacy doesn’t exist anymore.”
“But,” I countered, “Those memos that were leaked – people said those things believing they would remain confidential. They felt safe to speak because of confidentiality.”
“Confidentiality, privacy – the internet is getting rid of all that.”
I have been contemplating this ever since. In a world where top-secret information is now public and people post pictures of their weddings, children’s births, and other celebrations as they are happening, perhaps my boyfriend is right. But what about our clients? What will this mean for the culture of counseling?
When people come in for counseling, they are anticipating a place of privacy where they can freely air their thoughts and feelings, no matter how embarrassing or painful. Often these clients are telling us things they have never told anyone before – not their families, not their friends. Our own ACA code of ethics requires us to keep these conversations confidential except for a few exceptions, such as the clients’ planning to harm themselves or others. If the idea of confidentiality is changed, our clients may feel even less safe divulging their secrets to a “stranger” no matter what qualifications this person possesses. No matter how trustworthy this person actually is.
On the flip side, what if this new, open cyber-society encourages people to come forward with their secrets, their fears, and their innermost thoughts? Perhaps the breaking down of secrecy could lead people to be less ashamed of their own secrets and be more willing to plumb the depths of their souls. Clients need to want to change in order for therapy to be effective, and if secrets are no longer sacred maybe a willingness to look at oneself and make the necessary life changes will come about more readily.
I think, though, that it comes down to truth versus deception. When I post an article on the internet or update my Facebook status, I know full well that whatever I write is available for the world at large to see. If I sit down with my counselor, though, I have the expectation that whatever we discuss will be private. It is one thing for me to post about a sensitive family situation on Facebook, and a completely different thing to find that my counselor has posted about me and that situation on Facebook without my knowledge (not that he ever would, I am sure!). No matter how open society is becoming, our clients still need to feel safe. They still need to know our communications are confidential and that we respect their privacy.
Tara Overzat is a counselor-in-training at Mercer University in Atlanta. Her interests include multicultural issues and acculturation amongst college students.