Home Questions to Consider in the Coming Privacy Wars

Questions to Consider in the Coming Privacy Wars

It seems obvious that privacy is going to be a major point of contention in the near-term future. It’s only going to get hotter as major online services compile huge amounts of data about us, as Open Data advocates push for that data to be freed up for reuse and as more cluster[fudge] incidents like the Facebook Beacon and the AOL search data release hit the public consciousness.

The story in the news this week is about Sears getting caught installing ComScore tracking spyware surreptitiously on customer’s computers. Who knows what it will be next week? Who knows what lurks in the shadows, set to make the news in the coming year or not at all?

I want it all, personally – I want my data to be free, I want to be in control of it and I want to have control over my privacy as well. Is that too much to ask? The watchdog group Privacy International released their annual report today about privacy around the world and put the US in the lowest category – “endemic surveillance societies.” Can we figure out how we can minimize surveillance while balancing privacy and the incredible opportunities that come from making at least some of our data open?

Beyond that big question, there are a lot of “little questions” that we need to engage with as soon as possible so that we don’t lose out on privacy or Open Data, one at the expense of the other.

Here’s my list of important questions, what’s on yours?

1. What of contemporary privacy standards should be carried through into an era of data and what ought not?

Contemporary legal standards are feeling the strain of an emerging era of data; should family be able to access a deceased person’s social networking accounts, for example? (And who constitutes family, by the way?) There are many different frameworks for privacy that could be drawn on – are direct messages on Twitter between you and Clergy or your Doctor legally protected as Privileged Communication? Presumably so. What about credit card data – is that a privacy framework that we might or might not want to use as a model for privacy policies regarding our browser history, saved items and contact lists? Probably not.

Some contemporary privacy frameworks may be woefully inadequate for the fast approaching future, some may continue to serve us well and some widely accepted ideas about privacy may receive long-overdue reconsideration in the face of changing communication.

2. How do we balance the benefits of data openness with the need for privacy?

Leveraged Attention Data, data mining, “anonymized” aggregate behavioral analysis – new useful forms of access to data take shape quickly in a technology landscape undergoing rapid evolution. Some people look at any of it and freak out.

Surely there’s some standards and best practices that can be determined in order to maximize the good from both open data and privacy. The costs are too high in both directions to lose out on either for the other.

3. Are users savvy or motivated enough to control our own data?

Or do decisions need to be made, benevolently, for us by either standards and/or market forces? When should data collection be opt-in and when can it be opt-out? Are vendor interests served better or worse by pushing users into giving up more control over data than we might want to?

These questions invoke psychology, sociology, philosophy and economics. It’s not just Computer Scientists, marketers and PR pros who will have jobs in the future!

4. Is the desire for privacy a conservative force that will hamper innovation based on openness?

Hopefully not. If we must choose, which should we choose? I asked my friends on Twitter (of all places) who would go on record saying that “privacy is an illusion” and 15 people said they agreed with that statement within 15 minutes. Chris Messina posted links to three postshe’s written on the topic. Personally, I contend that the most important level of privacy will be safe until the implant comes.

5. Will a lower threshold of privacy than is good for us become a competitive necessity?

“What do you mean you haven’t turned on the GPS tracking in your child’s mobile? How will she write the report on her daily travels that’s assigned to her at school?”

A common ethical dilemma discussed concerning things like human genetic engineering or performance enhancing measures is the risk that such actions may set a new standard that becomes required for meaningful participation in society – whether it’s a good idea or not.

When Social Security numbers were assigned in the US they were explicitly not intended for identification purposes. That’s now a joke, you practically have to give out your social security number and identity theft runs rampant.

Our collective decisions have the potential to create effective coercion in the lives of individuals, making the opt-out a decision that leads to social isolation and greater survival challenges than are fair.

6. Is data centralization in the hands of a single vendor an inherent threat to privacy?

Hello, Google. Hello Google Search, Maps, Sky, Streetview, GMail, Docs, 23andMe genetics, Talk, Goog411, Google Scholar… surely I’m still missing a lot of the data that Google has collected about us.

Is data centralization in the hands of a single vendor an inherent threat to privacy? Yes. To draw an analogy, trusting the “Do No Evil” line is like saying you’d support a President that you like changing the constitution to allow warrantless wiretapping. Centralization of power, even if it’s exercised benevolently at any given time, is not in our best interest in the long term. In fact, I’d argue that it’s highly irrational.

How does this relate to open standards of data, though? Does information need to be centralized if anyone with enough resources can access it all from anywhere?

What are we going to do about it?

7. What is the balance between digital privacy and national or international security?

Speaking of Administrations you do or do not agree with, what question could be more timely to ask than this one? Around the world it’s Google and Yahoo! who are forced to wrestle with this question now, here in the US it’s ATT and the public library – in the future it will be everyone.


The coming privacy wars are going to be high stakes and heated. I’m sure there are other big questions that I haven’t thought of, but I think that at least these 7 issues are ones that we would be well served engaging with sooner rather than later. Here’s one response to the questions above – what do you think? Let’s crank up our talking about these issues online, I’m guessing that many of us talked about them a lot over the holidays with friends and family.

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