Posts about privacy

The public life

The irony is so thick you could spread it on a bagel: In Today’s Times, Tom Friedman writes about living our lives in public thanks to the bloggers, vloggers, and podcasters who can watch our any, if not every, move and tell the world about it. Of course, the column itself is not in the public. It’s behind the wall. Anyway, Friedman tells a story he told at the Personal Democracy Forum (columnists, like bloggers, are good recyclers):

Three years ago, I was catching a plane at Boston’s Logan airport and went to buy some magazines for the flight. As I approached the cash register, a woman coming from another direction got there just behind me — I thought. But when I put my money down to pay, the woman said in a very loud voice: “Excuse me! I was here first!” And then she fixed me with a piercing stare that said: “I know who you are.” I said I was very sorry, even though I was clearly there first.

If that happened today, I would have had a very different reaction. I would have said: “Miss, I’m so sorry. I am entirely in the wrong. Please, go ahead. And can I buy your magazines for you? May I buy your lunch? Can I shine your shoes?”

Why? Because I’d be thinking there is some chance this woman has a blog or a camera in her cellphone and could, if she so chose, tell the whole world about our encounter — entirely from her perspective — and my utterly rude, boorish, arrogant, thinks-he-can-butt-in-line behavior. Yikes! . . .

For young people, writes [Dov] Seidman, this means understanding that your reputation in life is going to get set in stone so much earlier. More and more of what you say or do or write will end up as a digital fingerprint that never gets erased. Our generation got to screw up and none of those screw-ups appeared on our first job résumés, which we got to write. For this generation, much of what they say, do or write will be preserved online forever. Before employers even read their résumés, they’ll Google them.

“The persistence of memory in electronic form makes second chances harder to come by,” writes Seidman. “In the information age, life has no chapters or closets; you can leave nothing behind, and you have nowhere to hide your skeletons. Your past is your present.” So the only way to get ahead in life will be by getting your “hows” right.

I’m going at this from a different perspective in a post I’ll be putting up soon about the positive aspects of living life in public.

Losing control of media

NBC News says they will not make the videos from the Virginia mass murderer fully public and this morning on Today, Matt Lauer promised that they would not constantly loop them on the air. NBC News President Steve Capus just said on the air that “it’s so twisted” and “there’s no way to watch it without being extremely disturbed.” There’s a debate going on in blogs about whether the tapes should be released online. Dave Winer and Doc Searls say that the video should be released: “It’s 2007,” says Dave, “and it’s a decentralized world. We should all get a chance to see what’s on those videos.” But Micah Sifry says the father in him doesn’t want his kids discovering this on the internet.

As a father, I understand Micah’s wish. But that horse is out of that barn. This is related to yesterday’s discussion about news coming from witnesses, live, to the internet without the opportunity to filter it.

The essential infrastructure of news and media has changed forever: There is no control point anymore. When anyone and everyone — witnesses, criminals, victims, commenters, officials, and journalists — can publish and broadcast as events happen, there is no longer any guarantee that news and society itself can be filtered, packaged, edited, sanitized, polished, secured.

Like it or not, that’s the way it is. But before we start wringing our hands over the unique, one-in-a-billion exception to all rules — the mass murderer with a camera — let’s make sure we remember that this openness is a great and good change. It enables us all have a voice and to hear new voices.

And let’s not presume that we all need NBC or anyone to protect us from life as it is. But we do need to make sure to educate our children to be media-wise in a new media world. They will need to judge who the bad people are in life just as they will online. They need to understand that media is no longer a pasteurized and packaged version of life but life itself, witih all its benefits and dangers.

And though I don’t want to watch the murderer’s videos myself, I do think there may be a benefit to these tapes being out there: The guy was clearly insane and dangerous and what’s most shocking about this story is that people around him knew it and tried to both get him help and stop him from doing something dangerous and yet our laws even prevented his parents from being notified because of overzealous laws governing privacy. Perhaps this will motivate us to change those laws and our attitude about insanity and its dangers. That may be an advantage of the public life.

This is not an easy transition. It challenges so many assumptions we have about a controlled media. Some of us celebrate the loss of control but others fear that loss.

Cookie monsters

I feared this: When AOL fucked up — is there any other word for it? — and released what turned out to be personally identifiable information with its data base of search results, I was afraid that the next thing we’d see would be a story once again raising the spectre of privacy with ad cookies. Here’s one. I’m a strong defender of ad cookies because without them and the targeting and efficiency they enable, advertisers would advertise less or pay less or both on the internet, pulling the rug and big out money out from under our beloved new world. And we’d all be getting crappier ads with dancing monkeys. Cookies are good. Search is good. But sometimes, an idiot does something stupid that ruins a good thing. AOL is just such an idiot.

: Fred Wilson’s take here.

Yes companies need to have privacy policies. And yes they need to adhere to them. And yes, they shouldn’t be making public people’s search queries. And yes, consumers should be able to easily opt out of these targeting approaches.
But cookies and stored search queries are good things. They make it possible for web services to deliver relevancy in advertising, something no other media has been able to deliver efficiently and reliably.

The reality is that these targeting approaches, whether they be searched based, behavioral, contextual, or whatever is next, are giving us more relevant ads.

The data fight

The issues in the fight over telephone companies releasing data to the NSA aren’t so simple as they are being reported and spun under the dark cloud of privacy violation.

From what we know, data was released to the NSA so it could be analyzed to find patterns and thus to find anomalies that might lead to suspect communication and suspects, in turn. In other words, you can’t tell what’s abnormal until you define normal and we define normal.

If, in fact, it is aggregate data they are using to discover those exceptions, then we need to ask a new question that isn’t really being addressed in the networked world: Who owns the wisdom of the crowd? If the people own it, then one could argue that the government, acting as the people, may seek and use that data unless we, the people, forbid it through law. There is, of course, a proper debate about whether the law does allow it. There is also a proper debate over whether this is a necessary and prudent weapon in finding terrorists (and whether that is being done effectively). Indeed, a Washington Post poll says that 63 percent of Americans consider this an “acceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism.” And didn’t we protest that our government did not do a good enough job analyzing data and intelligence to prevent 9/11? If someone had been analyzing patterns of enrollment in flight schools — hmm, why are an abnormally high number of Saudis suddenly learning how to fly passenger jets? — then could we have stopped them? A further question is whether we have a right to know that all this is going on or whether that public knowledge cripples this investigation and our safety. Finally, it is not clear that releasing aggregate data necessarily violates individuals’ privacy. My point is that this isn’t as simple as raising the tattered-from-overuse privacy flag. Neither is this as simple as raising the also tattered war-on-terrorism flag.

This is about a new asset that is created in the networked world — the aggregate knowledge generated by our aggregate behavior — and who has a right to that.

This is certainly not new, only more efficient. Insurance companies have long used our health and mortality data in aggregate to set rates. Marketers use our aggregate data to adjust products and ad campaigns. Google uses our aggregate data to improve its search engine. So Google owns, analyzes, and exploits the data we create through our actions. In the case of the kiddie porn investigation, Google tried to refuse to hand over random aggregate data about our searches to the government; other search engines complied. The same thing occurred in the NSA case; some phone companies complied and Qwest did not.

The bottom line is that there isn’t yet a bottom line: The law and ethics around aggregate data are not clear.

See also this New York Daily News editorial:

Well, here we go again with the horrified screams from the crowd that’s inclined to believe the big bad government is peeping through every keyhole and recording every streetcorner chat about whether or not it looks like rain.

Revelations that the National Security Agency has been collecting a database of every telephone call in America – numbers dialed, that is, not conversations parsed – happen to come as British probers report that July’s London transit bombings might have been prevented if only security forces had been aware that one of the bombers regularly called Pakistan in the days before the blasts.

No, it’s no crime to call Pakistan. But when the call is part of a pattern that suggests a security risk, this is worth red-flagging and perhaps eavesdropping on – with a warrant and court supervision, as all right up to the commander in chief agree would be necessary.

Anyway, the idea that phone companies have been turning over raw logs to the NSA somehow doesn’t strike us as all that revelatory. Of course they have been, and they have been doing it legally. If the purpose is synthesizing data, then certainly the NSA would be keeping a database from which to synthesize. And where did you think the NSA was going to go to collect log data? …

: See also this Washington Post story on the privacy buggabuzzword:

“I wish I could say I was bothered by it but I’m not,” said Jacques Domenge, a 28-year-old Potomac man who visited a Cingular Wireless store in Rockville yesterday to replace a stolen phone.

“If it’s only done to protect people and find patterns that help the government find terrorists — I don’t think it will work, by the way, but let’s say it will — then I am all for it,” he said, adding that he had no problems with Cingular — or any other phone company — turning over records.

According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released yesterday, 63 percent of Americans said they found the NSA program to be an acceptable way to investigate terrorism, including 44 percent who strongly endorsed the effort. Another 35 percent said the program was unacceptable, including 24 percent who strongly objected to it.

“The value of fighting terrorism, in a lot of our research, seems to be more important to the public than what they perceive as violations of their privacy — so far,” said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll and vice president of the Gallup Organization in Princeton, N.J.

Newport said views of the NSA program — which was disclosed on Thursday by USA Today — should be viewed in the broader context of Americans grappling with more and more of their personal data being collected and analyzed by businesses. “When we ask what’s the most important problem facing the country, we don’t see any signs that privacy is beginning to percolate up,” he said.