The ubiquity of digital gadgets and sensors, the pervasiveness of networks and the benefits of sharing very personal information through social media have led some to argue that privacy as a social norm is changing and becoming an outmoded concept. In this three-part series Don Tapscott questions this view, arguing that we each need a personal privacy strategy. Part one can be read here, and part two here.
As the Net becomes the basis for commerce, work, entertainment, healthcare, learning and much human discourse, each of us is leaving a trail of digital crumbs as we spend a growing portion of our day touching networks. The books, music and stocks you buy online, your pharmacy purchases, groceries scanned at the supermarket or bought online, your child’s research for a school project, the card reader at the parking lot, your car’s conversations with a database via satellite, the online publications you read, the shirt you purchase in a department store with your store card, the prescription drugs you buy – and the hundreds of other network transactions in a typical day – point to the problem.
Computers can inexpensively link and cross-reference such databases to slice, dice and recompile information about individuals in hundreds of different ways. This makes these databases enormously attractive for government and corporations that are keen to know our whereabouts and activities.
George Orwell’s iconic text Nineteen Eighty-Four described the dystopian society where a totalitarian state rules in its own interests and everyone is under constant surveillance by authorities. This situation was often correctly alleged about the totalitarian East Bloc countries during the Cold War. It is unfortunately increasingly true of Western democracies today. In the name of national security, governments are collecting real-time information from us, sampling phone calls, emails and social networks, and taking our biometrics at airports and a growing list of other places.
We have little idea what governments are doing with this flood of personal information. And the aftermath of 9/11 should remind us just how quickly our civil liberties can be undermined in the name of national security.
Recently the New York Times reported that: “Law enforcement tracking of cellphones, once the province mainly of federal agents, has become a powerful and widely used surveillance tool for local police officials, with hundreds of departments, large and small, often using it aggressively with little or no court oversight.”
The Times reports that this practice has become big business for cellphone companies, too, as carriers market a catalog of “surveillance fees” to police departments to determine a suspect’s location, trace phone calls and texts, or provide other services.
Sure, you could argue that it’s becoming difficult to restrict the information that governments can collect, and yes of course we need to be vigilant about how that information should be used. But we still need to resist attempts of governments to collect unnecessary information. We still need to fight for the basic privacy principle of “data minimization” – of limiting the information collected to clearly definable and socially helpful purposes.
There should be no tapping of phones or anything else without due process. If a government agency proposes setting up a video camera in your neighborhood, you need to decide if the benefits of possible crime reduction outweigh the possible dangers of unknown governments being able to watch you constantly.
Or increasingly, governments want to collect biometrics information about you – like fingerprints, retinal scans and even DNA. We each need to make choices. Sometimes this benefits you with better government services or faster movement through airports. But what are the long-term implications should a government agency or individual become malevolent? The average person must be cautious and vigilant, and even resist the collection of unnecessary personal information.
To me, it’s not so likely that the future will resemble Orwell’s 1984, or Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison, or an East Bloc police state during the Cold War. Those are dystopic models from another era that depended upon a single, all-knowing malevolent power seeking control. The appropriate metaphor for the growing loss of privacy today is found in Frank Kafka‘s The Trial: The central character awaits trial and judgment by an inscrutable bureaucracy for a crime that he is not told about, using evidence that is never revealed to him, in a process that is equally random and inscrutable. In like manner, we, too, will be judged and sentenced in absentia by unknown public and private bureaucracies having access to our personal data. We will be the targets of social engineering, decisions, and discrimination, and we will never really know what or why.
In the private sector, companies want to know more and more about what makes each of us tick – our motivations, behavior, attitudes and buying habits. The good news is that companies can give us highly customized services based on this intimate knowledge – and build trusting relationships. Sometimes it is great to have highly customized ads. I don’t want to hear or see car ads except when I am interested in buying a new car. When I am, I would like to advise the car companies to bring it on! And as the Net becomes part of almost everything we do, the possibilities are limitless for fabulous, customized value for each of us, courtesy of the corporate world.
But there is a dark side. Companies can use our personal information to our disadvantage. Some of these are rogue “bad actors.” In the Rupert Murdoch tabloid scandal in the UK, cellular phone company technicians could sell the location of a specific phone. This way Murdoch’s reporters could track down celebrities.
Now, imagine a world where corporations have near-perfect information about each of us. As the aphorism goes, “knowledge is power.” Could companies go beyond fairly influencing us to being able to manipulate us? Could they abuse their detailed knowledge and cause us to purchase goods or services or take other actions that are not in our interests?
We already live in a consumer society where people go into debt to purchase things they really can’t afford. If corporations had information about our every purchase, articles we read, movies we watch, things we say, places we go, food we eat, medications we take and “big data” from myriad other sources, how could they use that asymmetrical power to advance their interests against ours?
Sometimes the information is used in a very roundabout way. Drug companies buy information from pharmacies about the medicines doctors prescribe to their patients. That way they know which doctors to target for their advertising and promotional campaigns, in the hope that the doctor will prescribe different drugs.
So, given that there are few controls and even fewer companies that practice “privacy by design,” it makes sense to be cautious about what information you provide. Don’t fill out warranty cards. A warranty is valid whether or not you fill out a card. They simply provide information about you to companies. Refuse junk mail, and take time tweaking your spam filter. Don’t let a merchant copy your driver’s license. Never give out your Social Security number unless it’s legally required. Make sure that online forms are secure. Don’t automatically consent to the collection, use or storage of your personal information. Question why people want your personal information. Make it clear that you do not wish your information to be disclosed to any third party. There are many things you can do, while we wait for companies to change how they treat our data.
Moreover, the information you provide has value – to market researchers, advertising companies, social networks and other online platforms. But most companies disagree that individuals own the rights to such information, since people provide the data for free or nearly free. The entire value of Facebook, estimated at $100 billion, for example, is the knowledge it has of its users: their likes and dislikes, what they say, what they do, where they shop, who their friends are, and so on.
The degree of detail Facebook has is mind-boggling. Facebook does not pay users any money in exchange for this information. Facebook insists that it provides a superior service as a result and that the service is sufficient payment. The same is true of Google. It prides itself on its accurately targeted advertising, for which its advertising clients pay top dollar. None of this money is shared with Google’s users, however. If they are selling your information without your permission, they are depriving you of the opportunity to capture that income yourself.
The situation becomes more grim when companies exchange information with one another or with different arms of the same corporation, taking a series of seemingly simple isolated acts and compiling them into a detailed profile of an individual’s behavior. Google recently announced it would share information across its search engine, YouTube downloads, Gmail use and more than 50 other separate services the company provides. Again, this is done so that Google has as detailed a profile of individuals’ behavior as possible so that advertisers will pay more for the possibility of influencing your behavior.
If history is any guide, advances in privacy have tended to arise in the wake of widespread privacy abuses – for example, the negative effects of mass printing presses, the emergence of the fascist state, and the abuses of credit reporting companies in the 1960s. Something similar may be happening today with data breaches and identity theft “in the cloud,” as more and more people come to understand the pain and consequences of personal data misuse.
By all means, be as open as you want, but realize that with openness can come vulnerabilities, especially for your children. “Discretion is the better part of valor,” to borrow Shakespeare’s thought, and that means it makes sense to be careful in the face of unintended consequences and risks.
PHOTO: A row of security cameras in central London, November 2, 2006. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez