September 20, 2013

The #PrivacyPapers Project

We recently concluded an absolutely wonderful online discussion group of online privacy issues & data collection that I had the pleasure of moderating.

Here was the first post:

Welcome to The Privacy Papers (Friend us on Facebook!!  #FollowUsOnTwitter! Pin us (?) on Pinterest!  Make us your boyfriend/girlfriend on Tinder!), where I email questions on the topic of privacy to a group of fascinating and fantastic volunteer luminaries (those being you!), and we trade emails for the rest of the week (or maybe more; not sure yet) beating this horse until its good and dead.  

If, by some miracle, this works out and is both fun and interesting, there will be future series on education, parenting, mindfulness practice, rainbow-looming, and spelunking.  And I'll quit my day job as a lawyer.  (But don't worry!  Please.  Don't worry.  You just signed up for this one.) 

The Daily Show Breaking News:  Google: "Gmail users can't legitimately expect privacy."  Just like Google can't legitimately expect us to use Google+.

I want to kick off our #PrivacyPapers discussion with a TEDx talk given by Chris Soghoian last year, which I think does a nice job of framing some of the key issues I see, including the economics of privacy (dealing in the value and monetization of user data), the power of companies like Facebook and Google (and many many others), government surveillance, and more.  (Now, with 20% MORE government surveillance!)

Watch it (or at least browse the transcript here): 

For those of you who don't want to watch it, here is a snippet from his talk: 

"The dominant business model in Silicon Valley is to provide free services to consumers in exchange for their personal and private information.  They give fantastic social networking services, free email, web brewers and other software and in exchange they collect our data and they monetize it."  

In other words, to borrow from Field of Dreams, sort of:  "If you build it, they will come.  And then you monetize them."  Or as one of the comments below the above video so astutely noted, "if its a free service, more than likely you are the product."  Or, to continue on the movie riff, let's just say, the world might be ready for the a privacy documentary entitled "Monetize Me."

(See, now its like you pretty much watched it.  Except for the other 15 minutes that you didn't see, which really are pretty good.  But for chrissakes.  How much time does this guy think I have...?!).

Anyway, Soghoian closes his talk by stating that when it comes to choosing between the business model and privacy, privacy never wins.  The business model will win every time.  And therefore, "if we want privacy, we are going to have to start paying for it."

This leads me to my first question

Do you like Gladiator movies?  (No no - I'm kidding.  That's just a line from the movie Airplane.  That's not *really* the question.  Everyone loves Gladiator movies.  Duh.  And what does that have to do with privacy, anyway?!)

No, the first question is this:  What the heck does this mean?  "If we want privacy, we are going to have to start paying for it." 

Second question (which is in three parts - "I will answer the last part, first...") goes to the alleged power of these companies collecting and mining the data.  

To set the stage a bit, this is from a Mitch Kapor interview:  "I think that in all generations...leaders in the industry had a very complicated mix of motives that are party idealistic, partly pragmatic, and partly Darth Vader...[they key difference is how powerful their companies have become]...What you do isn't just affecting 5 or 10 million nerds and geeks, its everybody and everything."

In a similar vein, this Harvard guy I follow on Twitter, Umair Haque tweeted this series of thoughts the other day:

  • ·      "We have the worst of all worlds when it comes to the politics of tech.  Institutions are opaque; people have no privacy"
  • ·      "That's completely backwards.  In an open society, institutions should be transparent, and people's lives opaque."
  • ·      "In this sense, tech itself is eroding the basic social contract open societies depend upon.  And that's deeply worrying :)"

Alarmist or cause for alarm?

So question two is on a scale of 1 to 11, where one is the lowest and 11 is HUGE in the This is Spinal Tap sense, how concerned should we be about private companies like Google and Facebook?  Why should we or shouldn't we be concerned?  And if we are concerned, what the heck should we/can we do about it? 


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