Archive for July, 2010

End of Privacy

A little rambling on some thoughts that have been on my mind in relationship to privacy issues.  In saying the "end of privacy", I'm trying to imagine what the effect of loosing what we understand today as being control over our personal information.  Loosing control in effect means opening up the can of externalities that take place as soon as we can no longer determine who is seeing our information or what uses our information is put to.  Imagine that anything I write to anyone can be seen by everyone, any where I go can be known to anyone at any time, anything I say can make it into the public record, and as soon as someone believes they can actually map my thoughts, those too will be knowable to others.  If you think about it, many of the technologists working to make these things happen are moving us closer and closer to this new world.  Where it would be nice to have all of this coordinated by a rational independent authority so that we stay focused on the impact to the individual first, because there's no master architect it's unlikely to be the primary consideration.  The focus on the individual will be the sizzle not the steak.  All of the technologists behind the various services are busily making these things happen, each of course, is doing so with the best of intentions.  Not to mention, that I'm not sure I see the business in privacy, as a stated in a previous post, versus the economic interests aligned against it.

The impact of having comments shared that were meant for one intended recipient manifested themselves with email many moons ago, and we quickly realized that if it's written electronically it can easily be copied or forwarded and be shared with others.  Actually, email used to have another more devilish feature (which some email readers still support) similar to "Forward" called "Redirect" where you could redirect a document to another person, but any response from that person would go directly back to the originator of the email.  This created much confusion and more than one "faux pas" or snarky response intended for the person that redirected the email, actually going to the original sender…d'oh!…but I digress.

Facebook broke us down some more by creating an environment they purported as being safe for communicating with only people you know in the physical world, but then extending (exploiting) our use of their service by opening our comments and pictures up to people we didn't know and didn't necessarily want to share these with.  Eventually allowing more and more of our information, that which we might have considered to be private, to be shared with total strangers and making us more discoverable in the process, than most people had intended to be.  In Mark Zuckerberg's opinion, it's what we want, in the opinion of people who had legitimate concerns for their safety and security, or in some cases their job prospects, this was been disastrous.  There is a tinge of irony here since what we supposedly want also lines up with furthering Facebook's business model, but I'll leave that for another time.

Location-based services have been the next bastion of assault on our privacy.  In some cases these are "opt-in" in others they are "opt-out" (and in some cases you have no choice), and the applications use game mechanics to make them more fun, keeping us distracted from the data collection they are doing.  Many of these so-called "free" services are not free at all, they just monetize our data in ways not immediately evident to users.  Other methods used to get at this information have been through services offered by the wireless phone providers to protect "the children".  A friend recently explained to me how he busted his son for lying about his whereabouts and going to a party for which he had not received permission to attend.  I laughed and asked why his son hadn't figured out he would get caught, to which he explained that the phone is too integral a part of his son's life to be away from it, so he was willing to take the chance that his parents wouldn't check up on him.  If you can do this with your kids, it won't be long until friends do it (that's what Loopt and Google Latitude are all about).  Heck, why stop there, it shouldn't be technologically difficult to enable even acquaintances that sort of access, then it's probably just easier to open it to everyone.  This certainly follows the logic of the social networks.

So where am I going with this?  Well, in a world without privacy it occurs to me that we would have to become fully accountable for all of our actions.  There would be no hiding behind the veil of politeness, there would be no more little white lies for us to get away with, or tailoring of our conversation to the audience we're addressing.  We in effect become fully transparent.  Context of our statements and of our locations would be difficult if not impossible to incorporate which is a considerable down side, but for all of the discussion around this issue, I see no slow down in the adoption of services that dispense with our privacy or the feverish pace of new services emerging.  Clearly, lack of context is not holding anyone up to opening up our information.  Perhaps this is what's needed at a time when trust is at an all time low, call it the shock treatment of trust enabling.  A high level of trust is important to a functioning society, be it on an economic level or on a political one, and increasing transparency may force the matter.  People becoming trustworthy, not necessarily because they wanted to be but because they have to be.

For all of this redefining (or dismantling) of privacy, there are clearly some other benefits which is what is enticing so many people to use these services.  Knowing that my friends are nearby, looking for a product or service near where I am *now*, making a coupon or an offer available to me at the time I'm near the establishment, keeping the kids safe, and locating my lost phone, are all certainly valuable services.  The fact that these come at a price that has not fully been digested by most is what worries me.  But a part of me also feels that perhaps the transparency pendulum has to swing to an extreme so that we all become aware of the risks of too little privacy.  Already Facebook has been making some changes and enables users to post links, photos and status updates to user created lists rather than to everyone.  As of today, they are also apparently testing the ability to delete accounts (not just deactivate as is currently possible).  Perhaps we are going through the bumps in the road necessary to learn how to deal with these new issues.

This weekend's release of classified U.S. war related documents by Wikileaks demonstrates the potential transparency can have on accountability.  While this was about the transparency in government, I believe we are on the threshold of similar things happening to individuals.  Both Jeff Jarvis on his blog BuzzMachine and Jay Rosen on PressThink raise some very interesting points organizational transparency.  In the case of Jeff he discusses the struggle between transparency and keeping secrets when trust is low.  Jay talks more about the world's first stateless news organization and the impact it will have news reporting.  What was interesting about the Wikileaks document release, is that they made a lot of documents available, hence enabling some level of context setting to occur.  Had they just released a few choice documents, the context might have been blurred.

So the question I struggle with is, will the loosing of our individual privacy be part of the age of accountability?  Sure, people claim to be accountable but in the past two years seeing the happenings in government, the financial industry, the oil and gas industry and several other areas, it feels like our systems are so complex that responsibility has been diluted.  In other words, no one is singularly responsible for anything any more.  Take the recent economic crisis stemming from mortgage-backed securities.  There were so many institutional players (and individuals within each of these) involved and a system built around passing "the hot potato", that it's difficult to point to any single actor or organization as being guilty of fraud or any other misdeeds.  Even the homeowners who were sold on the harmlessness of the mortgages they were signing up for had a role to play.  Transparency in this system might have helped us better assess where it all started to go wrong and the relative roles all of the players in this Theater of the Absurd.

Anyway, lots to digest here and clearly a need to break down the issues further, but thought this brain dump might be an interesting way to get thoughts out of my head 🙂

Freedom isn’t Free and There’s No Business in Privacy

As I was walking up one of the streets near my house today, I passed an old Blazer with a bumper sticker that read, “Freedom isn’t Free”.  This forced me to pause a bit and think about that.  I mean, sure the word “free” appears in freedom, but the point of this bumper sticker was in support of having wars to…how do they say this again?…protect our freedoms.  Yes, I have always seen this as a dubious claim and my sarcasm here is intended.  But this sentence forced one of those word associations or semantic links in my head, and next thing I know, as has happened quite frequently lately, the thought of privacy popped in.

Earlier today, I caught a New York Times article on a startup called Bynamite.  This startup sounded really cool to me until I got to the bottom of the article, specifically:

“Like most start-ups, Bynamite faces long odds. To succeed, it must be easy to use, and users must trust it as a reliable middleman handling their data. It has no business model yet, though it could offer product recommendations, based on interests, and collect fees on resulting sales from merchants. It hasn’t ruled out accepting ads itself.”

Which begged the question of how could I trust a company who has yet to define its business model and is asking that I trust them with my information?  Worse, they may even try to position themselves as deliverers of ads and product offers by knowing more about me, by receiving explicit permission to seek out all information that ad networks and sites have about me.  But in thinking through this further I also began to realize that in fact there really is no business in helping people maintain their privacy.  There’s no market for it either.  Look at what’s happening today and you’ll see how little people actually care about their privacy no matter what they say.  Look no further than in the success of Apple’s revised Terms of Use for iTunes and the App Store, where users give up their rights to manage and determine who gets their location data.  Apple basically says that not only will they have access to it, but any thrid party developer can get this as well.  Twitter enabled location data to be part of the metadata associated with tweets, and the faithful, like Apple’s, have embraced this capability.  A more powerful example comes in the form of the flourishing ecosystems around location-based social networks and games.  While today these require explicit “check-ins”, those using these services (which are growing every day) are becoming such emphatic users that it will soon be easier for them to have the check-ins occur automatically.  This is one group of privacy diluting activities that are helping to get us used to the idea that our sensitive location information should be made public.  Good news for the generation of thieves.

We also see another set of activities taking place around media properties that offer free access to their content.  Some of these sites try to offer pay walls but these offerings are often challenged by users’ mantra of not wanting to pay for content.  So instead these same people register to the media site’s free offering in exchange for being bombarded by advertisements.  Of course many of these ads come from ad networks, all of whom get to place a “cookie” on the user’s machine to track their activities as they navigate around the Web, making it easier to better target offers to them…sort of.  Software-as-a-Service applications like email also show some disregard of any privacy consciousness because the laws around emails being private when sitting in an ISPs servers have yet to be clarified.  In other words, without any certainty around what can happen to our emails, people have jumped on the use of hosted email services. Yes, I often hear the cop out refrain of “don’t say anything in email that you would regret anyone seeing”, and yet this has never really slowed anyone down from writing something that they wouldn’t want at least one other person seeing.  It’s in the nature of our personal intercommunications.

Where individuals may not be prepared or willing to pay to keep their information truly private or at least in their control, the fact is that marketers, media companies (who have advertiser clients), governments, and investigators, are all willing to pay for your information, and frequently are willing to pay quite a bit for it.  In effect, you don’t make enough money from keeping your information a secret (or in your control) to justify paying more than a Mercedes Benz dealership who wants to know your income and that you’re looking for a new car now.  When you think about how many services online are free to end-users, you begin to realize the value that your information must bring them in order for them to afford to provide you with free services.  Google is a simple but great example.  In exchange for providing you access to the WORLD’s information, they get to place ads next to their search listings with offers to entice you.  Google constantly refines how they decide what offers should appear as they figure out how to put information they have about you to better and better use.  Whether it be your search history, or where you last clicked on, or what people you know have clicked on.  Would you pay to use a search engine today?  I thought not.

As I read what Bynamite was offering, my first take was “this is great, about time someone helped us all understand what information all of these “trackers” have about us”, but as I realized that few people would likely pay for such an offering, it made me realize that in the end, Bynamite may just be wrapping themselves in the privacy flag to position a better mouse trap for getting access to a higher quality version of our data.  Once in hand, they can resort to the same business models that abound today for many media companies.

While I consider myself a pretty strong privacy advocate, I feel that the old adage “you can get any information from people by just offering a free t-shirt”, will make it difficult to enlist much of a following to support our need to have control over our own information, and to understand the effect of externalities that opened up as a result of no longer controlling our own information.