Saturday, November 23, 2013

Vint Cerf's not wrong, idea of privacy as anonymity may be an anomaly

Vint Cerf is someone for whom I have great respect, and a piece of advice: If you ever say anything in public about privacy, choose your words carefully. For example, if you say "Privacy may actually be an anomaly," then a lot of people will assume you said: Privacy is an anomaly. At which point they will stop listening and turn to Twitter to tell you how wrong you are.

I'm pretty sure that what you meant to say was that privacy, as a sense of being entitled to anonymity in all you do, is a concept born of the industrial age and the emergence of large cities where it was possible to achieve a level of anonymity unheard of in agrarian villages.

Do I think that particular concept of "privacy" is  sustainable? Let me preface my answer with a disclaimer: I am a paid up supporter of EFF and I am totally opposed to mass warrantless electronic surveillance and suspicionless physical stop-and-frisk.

But in my opinion, privacy as some people define it today, with a heavy emphasis on anonymity, is not sustainable. This is not because privacy is not a good thing or anonymity a bad thing. But the world has changed. Mass global travel. Complex virtual worlds. Huge online transaction flows. Ubiquitous mobile communication. This is a totally new world and not everyone in it is a good person.

We need to think about how we want privacy to work within this new world. A global digital economy cannot be sustained without trust and accountability, which require identity, and that requires sharing personal information.

For example, if I want to travel to another country I will be required to reveal a lot about myself in order to be granted entry. That's fine by me. And I want my government to know a lot about the people who come to my country. That doesn't mean I want my country to watch everyone all the time and hassle anyone who looks different, but all members of a society need to be onboard with the idea of transparency, without which we cannot have accountability.

I'm not sure if all of that was on Vint's mind when he was speaking, but I know what he means about villages because I've talked about this myself, since the last century. I was fortunate to spend the early years of the commercial Internet living in a small Scottish village (trying to use a dial-up modem over phone lines chewed by sheep did not feel fortunate, but other aspects of the experience made up for it). Of course, the early Internet went through a phase, alluded to by Glen Greenwald in a recent radio interview, where anonymity was not only possible but also liberating.

I won't go on about village life but just think of HIPAA today, then that village 20 years ago, where prayers were said in church on Sunday for people whose medical conditions were openly shared. Heck, you knew who'd seen the doctor that week because you'd watched him making house calls. A degree of privacy was available on demand, but acting anonymously was not easy, as our daughter discovered when neighbors told us where she he had been seen, and with whom.
I alluded to that experience when I published "Privacy for Business" in 2002 (that 240 page book is still available for free download as a .pdf). By 1999 it had become clear to me that digital access to information fundamentally transformed information. To put it another way, information is not just about facts, but also where they are stored and who can access them, plus the ease and speed of access. Telling Debbie at the village store my food preferences did not mean they entered a database. No computer recorded the fact that I had to run a tab at times when my royalty check was late.

On the other hand, when I moved back to a city I did not hesitate to get a discount card at the supermarket chain because frankly that type of tracking does not bother me (and will not unless I find someone is doing evil things with it). I was less willing to share my income information. But as I researched my privacy book I was struck by how many people equated privacy with being able to live anonymously, as though hiding everything you do from everybody was the goal of privacy. Fair enough I suppose, if that is what you mean by privacy, go for it, but then you have to explain why hundreds of millions of people around the world like to share details of their lives on Facebook.

In other words. we are now entering a very challenging period in human history, where the need to protect the citizens of the world from the murderous and unscrupulous will rub up against the desire of honest citizens to control the amount of information about them that is acquired, and by whom, and how it is used. Hopefully this friction will not be framed as a need to surrender some amount of privacy for some amount of security, but as a debate about how much transparency among persons and institutions is necessary to create trust and the wealth and benefits that trust brings to society.

Vint did not to say what another industry veteran once famously said: "Privacy is dead." That was Scott McNealy (someone else who hadn't read my advice about public statements on privacy). I happen to think Scott was trying to say what Vint was trying to say: It's all about present notions of privacy evolving in the light of massive technological change. Notions of privacy have existed since the dawn of humanity, but they have changed over time. Privacy as it was thought of in times past may not exist in the future. But then again, future iterations of privacy may evolve to be even better. A better future is what technology should be about, on that we can all agree with Vint Cerf.