Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Is privacy dead?

I’ve been told it is by all sorts of people.  The argument is usually that once the cat is out of the bag there’s no way to get it back in again, so we might as well just get used to it.  For the record, it’s not particularly difficult to get cats into bags but boxes are easier.  Anyway, the argument rests on the assertions that privacy is dead and that we can’t do anything about it.  As Peter Watts says, if privacy is already dead, why are so many people trying to kill it?

He’s got a point.  More data will always fall out if you rattle us hard enough.  Think Amazon knows everything about you because of your browsing and buying history?  It wants to learn about your social networks and the people in them, too.  That’s why it offers a gift-wrapping service.  That way it can find out who your friends are, their addresses, their approximate birthdays, ages, sex and the sort of stuff they like. Or at least the sort of stuff you think they like.  If it can match this information up with actual other customers, it can learn a lot about your relationships.  What if you use Amazon’s gift service to buy a friend’s birthday present each year, but they don’t do the same?  There are various inferences that could be made about the nature of that relationships and it’s easy to imagine various subtle but invasive ways to narrow it down further.  What if the gifts you buy for your friend are nothing like the things that friend buys for herself?  Might Amazon find ways to manipulate you into buying them the gifts Amazon wants you to buy?

It needn’t even be subtle.  What if, when you tagged something as a gift, Amazon gave you a list of suggestions, telling you it’s based on what your friend has bought or put on her wishlist? You might think of that as a useful additional service.  Perhaps it would be, but it would also tune Amazon’s picture of your (and your friends’) social networks, all the better to further exploit you all in the future. 

We might understand this and consider it a worthwhile price to pay for convenience, but our friends might not understand it or might not consider it a good deal.  We didn’t consult them before giving away valuable information about them.

There’s always more data that’ll fall out if you rattle us hard enough so it’s not the case that we’ve nothing left to protect. Privacy is not dead. It’s also not true that there’s nothing we can do about lost privacy.  First, there are things we can do to stop leaking private data.  Second, there are things we can do in some cases to take back data that’s already out of the bag.  So it’s not the case that we have no recourse but to accept it.

It’s worthwhile to consider the motives of the people who are so eager to tell us we can do nothing but accept the loss of privacy.  How often does the argument go something like this:

All you can do is accept the loss of privacy, but that’s actually super cool!  Think of all the great services you can get for the marginal loss of a little privacy?


Sure you’re losing some privacy and freedom, but you’ll be so much safer!

They are the people who are trying to overcharge you for services with greatly exaggerated worth.  They are the people who are trying to sell you bad privacy bargains.

Watts takes heart from much of this.

I take heart from the fact that the the Free World is trying to curtail freedom at every turn. I take heart from the endless attempts of the UK, the US, and Canada to pry into our private lives and put webcams in our toilets (because you never know when someone might try to avoid prosecution by flushing a bag of coke down the john, you know). I take heart from PRISM and the Snooper’s Charter and Bill-C-whatever-number-they’re-up-to-this-week— because they put the lie to those stories in Wired and the Daily Mail and the New York Times, they put the lie to all those journos and pundits who would tell us that privacy is dead. It gives me hope.

Because if privacy is really dead, why are so many still trying so hard to kill it?

Read the whole thing, it’s good.

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