Following up on “Publicy”

Following Eric Schmidt’s latest take on privacy, I am getting some link “love” from the big guys, with Techcrunch and Cnet both pointing to an early 2009 article I wrote on my take on privacy, something I believe you are not getting at birth anymore, but need to build around the concept of a “plausible me”. Publicy is a space you can control and where you can regain your privacy by publishing fake information – like 50% of social networks users aged 13-21 who claim they falsified information(see page 28). Almost one year has passed since that post, and this important topic deserves a few more thoughts:

  • More logging planned One year later, laws like Hadopi are popping up all around the world, which means every single act you do online is being monitored and logged. In France again, several databases are in the works, some storing information like philosophical, religious and sexual orientation, and other strangely irrelevant information when it comes to something the government should know on you. All this to say that the situation got worse, and definitely, privacy is not a choice anymore. Nobody can shut down all the video cameras capturing our movements in the streets.
  • Privacy in the old sense of the word is dead Saying this does not make me agree with that development. But whether we like it or not (and I mostly don’t), there are many files on each of us, and we need to find a way to limit their impact. Privacy in the 19th century sense of the word does not exist anymore. Reversing the trend will demand a lot of catastrophes and abuses for public opinion to realize the pitfalls of such systems, and start making the legal, social, and technological changes. It is like the financial system, one government, person or company can not change this alone. It is a global issue.
  • Privacy is not something we are granted at birth anymore It is not the default setting of our lives. In developed countries babies get their first database entry a couple of minutes after birth. The first data given up is weight, height, gender, name. Trivial and revealing at the same time. What is at stakes here is to find balance between the usefulness of data – tracking babies allows for better public health, and hopefully helps avoid confusions – and their nuisance potential. In the case of babies, it is pretty clear that the positive outgains the negative. But what happens for criminal databases? When they allow the capture of a recidivist, pretty good. When they prevent someone who has changed to get a new job and work himself back into society, they are a negative force. Where the balance point is depends on your political view, on whether you had such a case in your family, on the history of your country, etc.
  • Not to mention lost data… And I am not even talking about the worrying number of hacked/leaked data making it to the open. There is storing data, then there is securing it. And every time I call my insurance company and witness their global incompetency in handling even the most basic process, I am terrified to think that the same people are managing servers with a lot of my personal data on it.
  • The loss of the right to be forgotten is a terrible thing Because it prevents one from getting recognized as having gotten over any past mistake. Shrinks (they are put to contribution in the pre-cited CNET article) will tell you that a people can change radically through the long process of therapy. But as the recent Roman Polanski saga shows, there is no need for Facebook or Twitter to have things catch up with you 30 years later. Again, not a new problem, and probably more of a social than technological problem. 21st century is very bad at giving second chances it seems, despite the many stories of former convicts turning into positive forces. It is like, implicitly, society has accepted the total futility of the jail/punishment system. It does not work, criminals will strike again so we need a record on them. It is a shame there is no debate on how to regain trust in the correction system. If it was working 95% of the time we might not need databases.
  • The search for fame is not the only driver of online existence There are many reasons for us to go online, and therefore try to control our identity. The distance with friends (I’m in touch with my childhood friends now living in Reims, Paris, L.A, Lisbon, etc. It can only happen online), participation in a community (and something like Lift is only possible through online communities), launching a business (which means having a website with your name on it), etc. There is much more than pursuing an elusive fifteen minutes of fame. For a lateral view on this, take five minutes and read Howard S. Becker on studying new media. He mentions the many reasons why people are active online.
  • We are not the only source of negative information on us Where I disagree with Eric Schmidt is when he seems to imply that one is the source of all negative information about him/herself. Yes, “if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place“, but many exceptions should be taken into account there. I am not sure 14 years old Joseph Ratzinger (a man for whom I don’t have any special sympathy whatsoever) voluntarily engaged in the Hitler Youth, yet this was held back against him when he became Benedict XVI. A disease can also be a source of information you want to rightfully hide from the public, and this should be possible. People do not chose to have cancer, yet a few cases of people fired after searching for data on this condition have surfaced. Some information can hurt us, and we might have nothing to do about them.
  • Privacy needs a serious framework Trying to find a definitive rule to guarantee an even privacy to all citizens is probably a lost cause, because we all need to solve a different equation. Some of us need total privacy, others need to be semi or fully public figures because of their business, personal or political activities. Being totally transparent can even protect you from government abuse! What we need is more of a framework where anybody can position the cursor as he wants, and more importantly, change its position over time. As the founder of Lift, I have to communicate online as I am the first node of a global community. Whatever my next job is, I might want to reverse the trend and become more secret. This is not really possible right now, and if you have a solution in mind you will be very rich and you should contact me, I will invest whatever I have in your company :)
  • Self regulation is already underway This kind of larger than life issues tends to self regulate. And I think that in the end, Google and the advertisers – often cited as the ones asking for less privacy – are the ones who have an interest in it. Why? I earlier mentioned a study showing that 50% of users among the 13-21 age range falsify information. You want to spy on me? I will feed you with fake data to push the envelope to where I want it to be. And I will make your profiling efforts much more complicated in the process. In the contrary, if you give users a system they can trust, one where they can control what is controllable, then they will share the data advertisers need. I am sure Google [Disclaimer: a partner of Lift] understands this, as their recent Data Liberation Front initiative shows. Facebook does not seem to be that far in terms of thinking, but it will inevitably come. This reminds me of the click fraud controversy: you can hardly identify them so the solution is to acknowledge them directly in your bidding for AdWords. For more on the lying habits of online users, be sure to check Genevieve Bell’s talk at Lift08:

8 comments

  1. karl

    I do not use anymore the term privacy for a couple of years. The term is not anymore making sense in the framework we are living now. I prefer to use intimacy (the degree of being close with someone or an environment) and opacity (the thickness between the « me » and the others having access to « me »)

    I have written a few blog posts about this topic.
    http://www.la-grange.net/2009/09/22/opacite

    The opacity surrounding the « me » follows these principles:

    1. Global : chaque unité d’information est disponible partout sur terre.
    2. Instantané : chaque unité d’information est disponible en temps réel.
    3. Répliqué : chaque unité d’information est répliquée à l’identique.
    4. Permanent : chaque unité d’information est conservée pour une longue période de temps.

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