Lockstep

Mobile: +61 (0) 414 488 851
Email: swilson@lockstep.com.au

It's not too late for privacy

Have you heard the news? "Privacy is dead!"

It's an urgent, impatient sort of line in the sand, drawn by the new masters of the universe digital, as a challenge to everyone else. C'mon, get with the program! Innovate! Don't be so precious - so very 20th century! Don't you dig that Information Wants To Be Free? Clearly, old fashioned privacy is holding us back!

The stark choice posited between privacy and digital liberation is rarely examined with much diligence; often it's actually a fatalistic response to the latest breach or the latest eye popping digital development. In fact, those who earnestly assert that privacy is dead are almost always trying to sell us something, be it a political ideology, or a social networking prospectus, or sneakers targeted at an ultra-connected, geolocated, behaviorally qualified nano market segment.

Is it really too late for privacy? Is the genie out of the bottle? Even if we accepted the ridiculous premise that privacy is at odds with progress, no it's not too late, firstly because the pessimism (or commercial opportunism) generally confuses secrecy for privacy, and secondly because frankly, we aint seen nothin yet!

Conflating privacy and secrecy

Technology certainly has laid us bare. Behavioural modeling, facial recognition, Big Data mining, natural language processing and so on have given corporations x-ray vision into our digital lives. While exhibitionism has been cultivated and normalised by the infomopolists, even the most guarded social network users may be defiled by Big Data wizards who without consent upload their contact lists, pore over their photo albums, and mine their shopping histories, as is their wanton business model.

So yes, a great deal about us has leaked out into what some see as an extended public domain. And yet we can be public and retain our privacy at the same time.

Some people seem defeated by privacy's definitional difficulties, yet information privacy is simply framed, and corresponding data protection laws readily understood. Information privacy is basically a state where those who know us are restrained in what they can do with the knowledge they have about us. Privacy is about respect, and protecting individuals against exploitation. It is not about secrecy or even anonymity. There are few cases where ordinary people really want to be anonymous. We actually want businesses to know -- within limits -- who we are, where we are, what we've done, what we like, but we want them to respect what they know, to not share it with others, and to not take advantage of it in unexpected ways. Privacy means that organisations behave as though it's a privilege to know us.

Many have come to see privacy as literally a battleground. The grassroots Cryptoparty movement has come together around a belief that privacy means hiding from the establishment. Cryptoparties teach participants how to use Tor and PGP, and spread a message of resistance. They take inspiration from the Arab Spring where encryption has of course been vital for the security of protestors and organisers. The one Cryptoparty I've attended so far in Sydney opened with tributes from Anonymous, and a number of recorded talks by activists who ranged across a spectrum of social and technosocial issues like censorship, copyright, national security and Occupy. I appreciate where they're coming from, for the establishment has always overplayed its security hand. Even traditionally moderate Western countries have governments charging like china shop bulls into web filtering and ISP data retention, all in the name of a poorly characterised terrorist threat. When governments show little sympathy for netizenship, and absolutely no understanding of how the web works, it's unsurprising that sections of society take up digital arms in response.

Yet going underground with encryption is a limited privacy stratagem, for DIY crypto is incompatible with the majority of our digital dealings. In fact the most nefarious, uncontrolled and ultimately the most dangerous privacy harms come from mainstream Internet businesses and not government. Assuming one still wants to shop online, use a credit card, tweet, and hang out on Facebook, we still need privacy protections. We need limitations on how our Personally Identifiable Information (PII) is used by all the services we deal with; we need department stores to refrain from extracting sensitive health information from our shopping habits, merchants to not use our credit card numbers as customer reference numbers, and online social networks to not x-ray our photo albums by biometric face recognition. I note that some Cryptoparty bookings are managed by the US event organiser Eventbrite, which has a detailed Privacy Policy setting out how it promises to handle personal information provided by attendees. It does seems reasonable to me, but like all private sector data protection arrangements, there's a lot going on there.

So ironically, when registering for a cryptoparty, you could not use encryption! For privacy, you have to either trust Eventbrite to have a reasonable policy and to stick to it, or you might rely on government regulations, if applicable. When registering, you give a little Personal Information to the organisers, and we expect that they will be restrained in what they do with it.

Going out in public never was a license for others to invade our privacy. We ought not to respond to online privacy invasions as if cyberspace is a new Wild West. We have always relied on regulatory systems of consumer protection to curb the excesses of business and government, and we should insist on the same in the digital age. We should not have to hide away if privacy is agreed to mean respecting the PII of customers, users and citizens, and restraining what data custodians do with that precious resource.

We aint seen nothin yet!

I ask anyone who thinks it's too late to reassert our privacy to think for a minute about where we're heading. We're still in the early days of the social web, and the information "innovators" have really only just begun. Look at what they've done so far:


  • Facial recognition converts vast stores of anonymous photos into PII, without consent, and without limit. Facebook's deployment of biometric technology was especially clever. For years they crowd-sourced the creation of templates and the calibration of their algorithms, without ever mentioning facial recognition in their privacy policy or help pages. Even now Facebook's Data Use Policy is entirely silent on biometric templates and what they allow themselves to do with them. Meanwhile, third party services like Facedeals are starting to use Facebook's photo resources for commercial facial recognition in public.
  • It's difficult to overstate the value of facial recognition to businesses like Facebook which have just one asset: the knowledge they have about their members. Combined with image analysis and content addressable image banks, facial recognition lets Facebook work out what we're doing, when, where and with whom, pirating billions of everyday images given over by members to a business that doesn't even mention these priceless resources in its privacy policy.

  • Big Data. The most notorious recent example of the power of data mining comes from Target's covert research into identifying customers who are pregnant based on their buying habits. Big Data practitioners are so enamoured with their ability to extract secrets from "public" data they seem blithely unaware that by generating fresh PII from their raw materials they are in fact collecting it as far as Information Privacy Law is concerned. As such, they’re legally liable for the privacy compliance of their cleverly synthesised data, just as if they had expressly gathered it all by questionnaire.

  • Natural Language Processing (NLP) is the secret sauce in Apple's Siri, allowing her to take commands -- and dictation. Every time you dictate an email or a text message to Siri, Apple gets hold of the content of telecommunications that are normally out of bounds to the phone companies. Siri is like a free PA that reports your daily activities back to the secretarial agency. There is no mention at all of Siri in Apple's Privacy Policy despite the limitless collection of intimate personal information.

As an aside, I'm not one of those who fret that technology has outstripped privacy law. Principles-based Information Prvacy law copes well with most of this technology. OECD privacy principles (enacted in over seventy countries) and the US FIPPs require that companies be transarent about what PII they collect and why, and that they limit the ways in which PII is used for unrelated purposes, and how it may be disclosed. These principles are decades old and yet they have been recently re-affirmed by German regulators recently over Facebook's surreptitious use of facial recognition. I expect that Siri will attract like scrutiny as it rolls out in continental Europe.

So what's next?


  • Google Glass may, in the privacy stakes, surpass both Siri and facial recognition of static photos. If actions speak louder than words, imagine the value to Google of digitising and knowing exactly what we do in real time.

  • Facial recognition as a Service and the sale of biometric templates may be tempting for the photo sharing sites. If and when biometric authentication spreads into retail payments and mobile device security, these systems will face the challenge of enrollment. It might be attractive to share face templates previously collected by Facebook and voice prints by Apple.



So, is it really too late for privacy? The infomopolists and national security zealots may hope so, but surely even cynics will see there is great deal at stake, and that it might be just a little too soon to rush to judge something as important as this.

Posted in Social Networking, Social Media, Privacy, Culture, Big Data

Post a comment

If you are a registered user, Please click here to Sign In

Your Name*

Your Email Address* required, but won't be displayed on this site

To help prevent spam in our blog comments, please type in "privacy" (without the quotation marks) below*