Monday, October 29, 2012

Privacy Evolves

Zach Cumer posted about Safety & Security for the now + the future and graciously invited me to comment. Here is what I wrote today:

Thank you for the invite to comment. I'm out and about right now, so here are some brief thoughts.

The Internet, social media and our digital devices have brought transparency to our lives and the organizations we interact with. That never quite existed like this before. The youngest generation's entire idea of privacy is different than older generations' tend to be.

This new transparency is a double edged sword. On the one hand information is more available and often more useful than ever before. On the other, what used to be physical things, the artifacts of our lives, have become increasingly digital. Not everyone is ready for or understands what this means, even though it has already happened in many ways.

Hurricane Sandy, the storm that is hitting the East Coast of the US right now, illustrates: the moment the Internet goes out, our lives are plunged into 1980 style existence. Anything online, "in the cloud," is suddenly unavailable. Even more, if power goes out too, much of our lives goes back to 1880. Once the batteries run out, we learn the hard way what not being ready for power outages, being "1880 compliant" as I call it, is. We aren't used to how to do things like they were done in 1880. At least not long term.

At a retail job I had just after high school, the store couldn't see what was in inventory, on its own shelves, if there was a storm. The storm made the satellite link to headquarters go down. And the store's local computers didn't have that information by themselves. Technically, this is a problem of not having business continuity in the event of natural disaster, or simple rainfall in their case. Today, millions of people and companies can't get to their own address books, music collections or email because of a storm. One hopes the data-centers that store our digital lives don't lose the data in the rain and wind. Once hopes we'll still be able to get to everything after the storm has past. We need life continuity whether our tech works or not.

But, back to the privacy issues your post brings up. We don't send postal mail in clear envelopes because everyone wants, even needs, some privacy in their lives. Privacy still matters, and many call personal privacy a basic human right. Chapter 2 article 7 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union says [e]veryone has the right to respect for his or her private and family life, home and communications. Yet despite privacy still going into laws, we don't have great answers for how our lives and our whole society are affected when privacy erodes accidentally, or through malicious breaches. Or simply because the privacy settings can be confusing.

From the scary sounding scenario of showing up online in the background of a stranger's photo auto-tagged by facial recognition, to the more likely possibility that you forget your smartphone at a bar, with your identity and financial data on it, we as a society are forced to rethink things. Beyond extremes like home break-ins because the people check in publicly online, or identity theft, there are other ways our privacy is dynamic. Web search histories and online profiles together are used to market things to us based on what we share with the world. What we share is both things we know about, like a restaurant review we know we wrote and share in public, and stuff we don't know about, like data from Google on flu searches getting used by the Centers for Disease Control to predict outbreaks more accurately. What do we want to have private and what can never be private again not matter how much we want it to be? As a civilization we lack great answers.

I have some ideas how to prepare ourselves. Computers are not just laptops and desktops, they are phones and tablets and gaming consoles and more. Computers and networks are designed to store and transmit information. From the rubber feet on the bottom, to the casing, to every line of code, everything about them is for keeping and sharing information; it is their fundamental purpose. Anything done to contain or remove information from computers and networks works against their foundation, their purpose. And that is why all ways to try to keep information private is going against the grain of computers. In a perfect world, a secret we want to have stay secret should never be digital. Once it is, the uphill battle of keeping it private begins.

There is almost no way to remember that things tend toward being stored and shared digitally. Even harder to live knowing this moment to moment. Our devices get so tangled up in our day to day lives, it's easy to be lulled into comfort. It is easy to ignore that our devices easily share anything and everything we put on them, and reveal everything we interact with. So try to brace yourself, if such a thing is possible. Brace yourself for having something of yours shared when you don't want it to be. This very possibly can happen to you and to me. We may want to prepare for what we do when our privacy goes away. This isn't actually a new thing. Secrets have become not secret for eons. Not always, but often.

Forever, bad things have sometimes happened to good people. Having your private stuff go public is just one way it can happen. Panic and fear are never a good answer. Be aware of what your devices and digital life might reveal of your life, thoughts and such. Be aware no one can be perfect in securing stuff. And beyond matters of life and death, like national security, try to be open. When you are open you get to be involved in how the world gets your private stuff. And for god's sake, don't use "password" or your name or someone's birth-date as your access code/pin/password.

Like having locks on doors, if you don't use the security things you have, then you don't get the security they can give. Put a passcode on your smartphone. That way if your phone is lost or stolen, your email, profiles and the information about all your contacts is less likely to be in the open. If you're worried dirty pictures or video you would take might end up on tv or something, don't take them. And breathe. Whether we like technology or not, it is not our enemy. And whether we want technology to be part of our lives or not, it isn't going away anytime soon.

Society can't really ever move beyond itself. As our sense of privacy evolves, there will be growing pains. And there's nothing horribly wrong with still using cash, or still getting a paper statement like it's 1880.

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