The message is urgent. It’s often yelled in prominent headlines, with an implied challenge. The new masters of the digital universe urge the masses: C’mon, get with the program! Innovate! Don’t be so precious! Don’t you grok that Information Wants To Be Free? Old fashioned privacy is holding us back!
The stark choice posited between privacy and digital liberation is rarely examined with much intellectual rigor. Often, “privacy is dead” is just a tired fatalistic response to the latest breach or the latest eye popping digital development, like facial recognition, or a smartphone’s location monitoring. In fact, those who earnestly assert that privacy is over are almost always trying to sell us something, be it sneakers, or a political ideology, or a wanton digital business model.
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, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the pessimism (or barely disguised commercial opportunism) generally confuses secrecy for privacy, and secondly because frankly, we aint seen nothin yet!
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 informopolists, even the most guarded social network users may be defiled by data prospectors who, without consent, upload their contact lists, pore over their photo albums, and mine their shopping histories.
So yes, a great deal about us has leaked out into what some see as an infinitely extended neo-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. Privacy can involve businesses and governments giving up a little bit of power.
Many have come to see privacy as literally a battleground. The grassroots Cryptoparty movement came together around the heady belief that privacy means hiding from the establishment. Cryptoparties teach participants how to use Tor and PGP, and they 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. One Cryptoparty I attended in Sydney opened with tributes from Anonymous, and a number of recorded talks by activists who ranged across a spectrum of political issues like censorship, copyright, national security and Occupy. I appreciate where they’re coming from, for the establishment has always overplayed its security hand, and run roughshod over privacy. 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, shopping malls to not track patrons by their mobile phones, and online social networks to not x-ray our photo albums by biometric face recognition.
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.
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:
As an aside, I’m not one of those who fret that technology has outstripped privacy law. Principles-based Information Privacy law copes well with most of this technology. OECD privacy principles (enacted in over 100 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 information magnates 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.