The cover of Newsweek magazine on 27 July 1970 featured a cartoon couple cowered by computer and communications technology, and the urgent all-caps headline “IS PRIVACY DEAD?”
Four decades on, Newsweek is dead, but we’re still asking the same question.
Every generation or so, our notions of privacy are challenged by a new technology. In the 1880s (when Warren and Brandeis developed the first privacy jurisprudence) it was photography and telegraphy; in the 1970s it was computing and consumer electronics. And now it’s the Internet, a revolution that has virtually everyone connected to everyone else (and soon everything) everywhere, and all of the time. Some of the world’s biggest corporations now operate with just one asset – information – and a vigorous “publicness” movement rallies around the purported liberation of shedding what are said by writers like Jeff Jarvis (in his 2011 book “Public Parts”) to be old fashioned inhibitions. Online Social Networking, e-health, crowd sourcing and new digital economies appear to have shifted some of our societal fundamentals.
However the past decade has seen a dramatic expansion of countries legislating data protection laws, in response to citizens’ insistence that their privacy is as precious as ever. And consumerized cryptography promises absolute secrecy. Privacy has long stood in opposition to the march of invasive technology: it is the classical immovable object met by an irresistible force.
So how robust is privacy? And will the latest technological revolution finally change privacy forever?
Soaking in information
We live in a connected world. Young people today may have grown tired of hearing what a difference the Internet has made, but a crucial question is whether relatively new networking technologies and sheer connectedness are exerting novel stresses to which social structures have yet to adapt. If “knowledge is power” then the availability of information probably makes individuals today more powerful than at any time in history. Search, maps, Wikipedia, Online Social Networks and 3G are taken for granted. Unlimited deep technical knowledge is available in chat rooms; universities are providing a full gamut of free training via Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The Internet empowers many to organise in ways that are unprecedented, for political, social or business ends. Entirely new business models have emerged in the past decade, and there are indications that political models are changing too.
Most mainstream observers still tend to talk about the “digital” economy but many think the time has come to drop the qualifier. Important services and products are, of course, becoming inherently digital and whole business categories such as travel, newspapers, music, photography and video have been massively disrupted. In general, information is the lifeblood of most businesses. There are countless technology-billionaires whose fortunes are have been made in industries that did not exist twenty or thirty years ago. Moreover, some of these businesses only have one asset: information.
Banks and payments systems are getting in on the action, innovating at a hectic pace to keep up with financial services development. There is a bewildering array of new alternative currencies like Linden dollars, Facebook Credits and Bitcoins – all of which can be traded for “real” (reserve bank-backed) money in a number of exchanges of varying reputation. At one time it was possible for Entropia Universe gamers to withdraw dollars at ATMs against their virtual bank balances.
New ways to access finance have arisen, such as peer-to-peer lending and crowd funding. Several so-called direct banks in Australia exist without any branch infrastructure. Financial institutions worldwide are desperate to keep up, launching amongst other things virtual branches and services inside Online Social Networks (OSNs) and even virtual worlds. Banks are of course keen to not have too many sales conducted outside the traditional payments system where they make their fees. Even more strategically, banks want to control not just the money but the way the money flows, because it has dawned on them that information about how people spend might be even more valuable than what they spend.
Privacy in an open world
For many for us, on a personal level, real life is a dynamic blend of online and physical experiences. The distinction between digital relationships and flesh-and-blood ones seems increasingly arbitrary; in fact we probably need new words to describe online and offline interactions more subtly, without implying a dichotomy.
Today’s privacy challenges are about more than digital technology: they really stem from the way the world has opened up. The enthusiasm of many for such openness – especially in Online Social Networking – has been taken by some commentators as a sign of deep changes in privacy attitudes. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg for instance said in 2010 that “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people - and that social norm is just something that has evolved over time”. And yet serious academic investigation of the Internet’s impact on society is (inevitably) still in its infancy. Social norms are constantly evolving but it’s too early to tell to if they have reached a new and more permissive steady state. The views of information magnates in this regard should be discounted given their vested interest in their users' promiscuity.
At some level, privacy is about being closed. And curiously for a fundamental human right, the desire to close off parts of our lives is relatively fresh. Arguably it’s even something of a “first world problem”. Formalised privacy appears to be an urban phenomenon, unknown as such to people in villages when everyone knew everyone – and their business. It was only when large numbers of people congregated in cities that they became concerned with privacy. For then they felt the need to structure the way they related to large numbers of people – family, friends, work mates, merchants, professionals and strangers – in multi-layered relationships. So privacy was borne of the first industrial revolution. It has taken prosperity and active public interest to create the elaborate mechanisms that protect our personal privacy from day to day and which we take for granted today: the postal services, direct dial telephones, telecommunications regulations, individual bedrooms in large houses, cars in which we can escape or a while, and now of course the mobile handset.
Privacy is about respect and control. Simply put, if someone knows me, then they should respect what they know; they should exercise restraint in how they use that knowledge, and be guided by my wishes. Generally, privacy is not about anonymity or secrecy. Of course, if we live life underground then unqualified privacy can be achieved, yet most of us exist in diverse communities where we actually want others to know a great deal about us. We want merchants to know our shipping address and payment details, healthcare providers to know our intimate details, hotels to know our travel plans and so on. Practical privacy means that personal information is not shared arbitrarily, and that individuals retain control over the tracks of their lives.
Big Data: Big Future
Big Data tools are being applied everywhere, from sifting telephone call records to spot crimes in the planning, to DNA and medical research. Every day, retailers use sophisticated data analytics to mine customer data, ostensibly to better uncover true buyer sentiments and continuously improve their offerings. Some department stores are interested in predicting such major life changing events as moving house or falling pregnant, because then they can target whole categories of products to their loyal customers.
Real time Big Data will become embedded in our daily lives, through several synchronous developments. Firstly computing power, storage capacity and high speed Internet connectivity all continue to improve at exponential rates. Secondly, there are more and more “signals” for data miners to choose from. No longer do you have to consciously tell your OSN what you like or what you’re doing, because new augmented reality devices are automatically collecting audio, video and locational data, and trading it around a complex web of digital service providers. And miniaturisation is leading to a whole range of smart appliances, smart cars and even smart clothes with built-in or ubiquitous computing.
The privacy risks are obvious, and yet the benefits are huge. So how should we think about the balance in order to optimise the outcome? Let’s remember that information powers the new digital economy, and the business models of many major new brands like Facebook, Twitter, Four Square and Google incorporate a bargain for Personal Information. We obtain fantastic services from these businesses “for free” but in reality they are enabled by all that information we give out as we search, browse, like, friend, tag, tweet and buy.
The more innovation we see ahead, the more certain it seems that data will be the core asset of cyber enterprises. To retain and even improve our privacy in the unfolding digital world, we must be able to visualise the data flows that we’re engaged in, evaluate what we get in return for our information, and determine a reasonable trade of costs and benefits
Is Privacy Dead? If the same rhetorical question needs to be asked over and over for decades, then it’s likely the answer is no.