In 2014, the debate over online privacy is more muddled than ever

In 2014, the debate over online privacy is more muddled than ever

Summary: Tomorrow is Data Privacy Day, an occasion that should have us all talking about the problems of indiscriminate data collection and sharing. But in the post-Snowden era, that debate has been so muddled by NSA paranoia that it's unlikely to result in any substantive changes.

TOPICS: Privacy
In 2014, the debate over online privacy is more muddled than ever

When Edward Snowden slipped out of Hawaii with a treasure trove of classified NSA documents, he started a chain of events that have led to an intense and unstoppable public debate on the topic of government surveillance. As an unintended consequence, he also threw a monkey wrench into larger discussions of privacy in the information age.

Pre-Snowden, most discussions of privacy focused on data collection by giant advertising and analytics companies. That was the impetus for the Do Not Track initiative, which descended into parody last year and is lurching towards failure today.

Post-Snowden, discussions of online privacy have taken on a darker tone, one that regularly verges on scenarios that would have been considered paranoid only a year ago.

Tuesday marks the first observation of Data Privacy Day in the new era. The event, which is a spin-off of Data Protection Day in Europe, was originally a way for the event’s sponsors (National Cyber Security Alliance in the U.S., the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on the other side of the pond) to try to get coverage for a topic that most reporters frankly didn’t care about. That coverage is no problem now, given that the long list of sponsors includes big corporate names that have themselves been victims of the NSA’s indiscriminate data collection, including Google, Microsoft, and Verizon.

For its part, Microsoft commissioned a survey of technically sophisticated customers in the United States and four key countries in the European Union: Belgium, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. The survey’s results display a depressingly consistent confusion over the very definition of privacy. In addition, there’s little consensus over who’s responsible for protecting privacy. And, not surprisingly, there are some big differences in attitudes between consumers in the U.S. and those in the more privacy-sensitive Eurtopean Community.

By a significant margin, people on both sides of the Atlantic agree that privacy protection starts at the personal level. The survey asked “Who should be responsible for protecting your online privacy?”  In response, 46 percent of Americans and 40 percent of Europeans said that responsibility belongs on individuals. In the U.S., only 23 percent answered governments, perhaps betraying an ongoing mistrust of the NSA and other government agencies.

Roughly 30 percent of respondents in the U.S. and Europe think companies should take a lead role in protecting privacy, and an even higher number (45 percent in the U.S. and 42 percent in Europe) want technological solutions, rather than detailed transparency reports or more sophisticated privacy policies.

Microsoft sees that result as an endorsement of its investment in technology like its tracking protection lists for Internet Explorer. That might be true, but simply giving users more privacy-enhancing knobs and dials isn’t likely to make much of a dent in the real world. The same survey says fewer than a quarter of the respondents who use online services do more than skim privacy policies. (And remember, these are tech-savvy customers, not average users.) Asking those customers to install add-ons and enable features that frustrate the business models of Google and other advertising giants isn’t likely to end well.

A cynical reader of this survey might conclude, in fact, that nothing is likely to change soon. In response to the question, “For what activities are you willing to trade privacy for ease of use?” nearly half of U.S. customers said “Shopping,” and 39 percent or more said they’d also be willing to give up privacy for gaming, social networking, and banking. 

There are profound reasons to rein in indiscriminate NSA surveillance, not the least of which is that it doesn’t seem to be a good use of scarce government resources. But hopefully the fascination with NSA data collection will end soon and we can get back to having a real discussion of the risks of indiscriminate data collection in the private sector.

Topic: Privacy

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  • Really??? "Data Privacy Day"???

    I know you're kidding, right? "Data Privacy Day"? To whom should we send a $5 Hallmark card? Google? Snowden? The NSA? Obama? Let me know, please! Oh, & will the children have yet another day off school? After all, they DON'T have off President's Day, nor Columbus Day, but they DO have off for MLKJr. Day, so anything that will make this scenario ever more bizarre is completely welcome in my BIG Book of Boo-Boos! Thanks!
    • wait...

      So let me get this straight...are you saying that we in the United States don't need more holidays? Sorry...put me down in the "we need more holidays" camp. Most of the world has more holidays that we do and if there's any measure of quality of life, isn't it the number of days off we get to spend with the kids?

      (btw, if there's ANYONE worthy of creating a national holiday, it's MLK. Unlike some of those other guys, he really WAS a great man.)
      • Pay me not to work

        Yeah, that's the ticket.
  • Corportate spying is the great enabler for domestic NSA spying

    kill the roots the plant will die.
  • The funny part of all this is the giant corporations are upset with the NSA

    because any actions to interfere with the NSA on-line surveillance systems will also stomp all over the ones the giant corporations use to make advertising money out of.

    Another funny aspect is 99% of what Snowden made public has been aired before the public 5 or 6 times in the last 60 years as it's just a rehash of the Echelon Program (look it up in wikipedia). The only thing that's changed in that program is since 2002 the NSA had to restructure their data search system to look for traces of terrorists as well as spies and major criminals - this meant more key words and new search parameters. It was such a change it's taken over 10 years to get the process sorted out so it works well.

    The NSA has been intercepting and analysing communications OUTSIDE the US border since the late 1940s (all within the terms of US laws - challenged 4 times and found legal each time) and since 2002 the information from many other government agencies within the US have been adding their data to the pile being run through the system. The only data collected from inside the USA is from some of the US agencies who currently collect data inside the USA with legal approval; and this makes up a very small fraction of what they collect from outside the USA.

    Two things to keep in mind, if the NSA had been operating the Echelon Program from 1940 the US government would have had a much earlier warning about the Japanese plans for Pearl Harbour; and if the current data inputs and analysis system had been up and running in 2000 the US Government intelligence systems wouldn't have been caught out by Al-Quaeda in 2001. The initial program was set up to stop stop another Pearl Harbour and the 2002 changes were initiated to stop another WTC - we don't know exactly how effective Echelon has been in dealing with these issues as a successful intercept usually does NOT make the news, although a couple of minor incidents did get mentioned in the news.

    Another aspect to remember is that anything has to trigger alarms at several levels and rise up through a dozen computerised search programs before anything is even seen by an individual, this is because there is just way too much data to go through - thus 99.9999% is passed through without any concern.


    Now onto on-line privacy - that's simple, there NEVER has been any as the basic design of the underlying system is for data transfer without interference or over a damaged system, thus any privacy is only possible via the use of an encryption system. Anyone who thought, or thinks, otherwise has no understanding of the underlying technologies and how the Internet works.

    Doing things on-line is akin to doing them in the middle of a public park at midday.


    As to surveys, they're only as good as the way you word the questions - tell me what results you want and I'll write a set of survey questions that will get them for you.
    Deadly Ernest
  • Data Privacy...

    Data privacy means so much to people that they:
    Post to Twitter or Facebook every time they cut their hair.
    Constantly check in on Foursquare
    Post photos from their smartphone wherever they go.
    Tell the world of their every activity.

    What does privacy mean to these people? They're more concerned with missing their favorite cable show or band.
    • You missed it by a mile

      I'm not asking for privacy in my facebook posts or tweets. What I'm asking for is that my government not illegally, abusively steal the data I choose not to post in a public venue. Your post implies that we're a country of morons too stupid to know our tweets are public, which I can assure you is not the case. Are you advocating that because some morons over-share on social media, it's OK for the government to break into our e-mail Inboxes and Dropbox accounts to browse the contents? (Or more accurately, steal them and put them in a secret database?)
  • Lest they forget

    "But hopefully the fascination with NSA data collection will end soon ..."
    No. I hope the fascination remains in the public eye until the problems are resolved, those being, amongst others:
    - the slow erosion of privacy by unethical global corporations
    - the determined American totalitarianism that spies on its allies, invades other countries and has no objective other than its own wealth and power
    - Information Technology used as a weapon, rather than a means of progress in civilisation

    "and we can get back to having a real discussion of the risks of indiscriminate data collection in the private sector."
    Completely wrong: as usual focussing on the minor problem whilst neglecting the major. The big problems are the slow ethical decline and increasing totalitarianism.
    Who is responsible? We all are.
    However the Government and corporations have been engaged in a creeping encroachment.

    Its everywhere. I've pointed out before that even something as unimportant as Windows 8 we lost:
    - the boot choice of OS
    - the maintainabilty and interchangeability of hardware
    - the openness of the platform
    - value (using APPL price son Surface)
    - we gained a new tax on developers revenues
    - the Technet subscription, even the download of an ISO!
    - and with SKYDRIVE our files were replaced by symbolic links as the data went up to MSFT cloud central control
    - we gained expensive subscriptions ... at a time when the costs of hardware, OS and software services were decreasing

    I see the cloud as potentially a big land-grab.

    The brinkmanship of the US Government, the financial poisoning of the world economy by the custodian, the abuse of power and the coterie of wealthy elite, politicians and global corporations ... must be marginalised.
    And that won't happen unless an apathetic public is motivated ... Snowden's revelations being just the catalyst required for action.

    "A cynical reader of this survey might conclude, in fact, that nothing is likely to change soon."
    Nothing will happen if ZDNET bloggers just sink back into the rut of the mundane.
    Privacy is just the tip of the iceberg.
    • Can you name ONE country in the world,

      that doesn't have an agency the equivalent of the NSA? You can't, because that nation does not exist, and has never existed. Data gathering by those doing the governing has always happened, it is just made easier by our electronic communications.
      ps...your rant against Microsoft doesn't fit to well either, even if the statements were valid.
      Your anti-United States rhetoric is becoming quite old as well...clean up your system!
      • Excuse

        Did that "everybody does it" excuse work with your mom when you were 12 years old?
      • Tongs doesn't have an NSA, but that's because

        they don't have enough money to spend on the tech gear involved, nor do they worry about such stuff - they're too small.

        However, the problem is not the NSA, the problem is people wanting to stand naked in the middle of the street at noon and scream about wanting some privacy - that's what anyone who expects privacy on the Internet is doing as it was NEVER designed to give any privacy.
        Deadly Ernest
  • Muddled by NSA paranoia??

    Is it paranoia, or history repeating itself...

    Show me in history where government has spied on its own citizens to the extent the NSA does, and it has not led to totalitarianism.

    While the NSA certainly has an important role in national security, Snowden has shown that the amount of data that exists pertaining to daily activities (such as who you call) can readily be used in the context of 'information is power' and then that power leveraged to increase that power to the point of an abusive dictatorship.

    Which is more dangerous: Paranoia or turning a blind eye or ignoring history?
    • Funny^

      the Americans made a big thing about how bad the Russian's spying on America was during the Cold War, but America doing even more of the same thing is fine? Even to its own citizens?

      How about the National Socialist Government in Germany in the 30s and 40s? Or the Staatssicherheit (Stadi) in the German Democratic Republic up until 1990? Where family members and colleagues were coerced into spying on each other?

      Try looking through the BStU website for more information on the damage such spying can do to a population:;jsessionid=F87DAEC170AD17151FE79B59223C7695.2_cid344
  • This is nothing new

    because for all of human history there have always been people who want to know the secrets of other people, whether it was the nosy neighbor or have a paranoid king. As communications became more than simple face-to-face, the technology of eavesdropping has increased at the same rate as the technology of communication. Long-distance communications made possible by technology has always also eroded privacy of those communications. When the telephone was first invented, most people that had that oh so modern gadget were on something called a party-line where anyone on that circuit could listen in on anybody else.

    I recall my wife telling the story on her father when they lived on a farm and had the latest iteration of this modern invention called the telephone. Because there were at least six people connected to that circuit, one day the father picked up the phone and heard the neighbors talking about going into the forest to a particular spot where mushrooms were abundant at that time of the year. The father listened in for a while and then piped up, "hey can I come too?" The answer was a friendly "of course you can if you want too". Also in the days before the dialing system, it was common knowledge that the operators often listened in on the conversations, especially at night out of sheer boredom. Often, especially in smaller towns, when someone asked an operator for a certain number or person, the operator would reply something like, "oh don't bother, they are visiting their relatives in the next town and are not home". The operator might get an instruction to let the caller know when the people he/she wanted to be connected to came home to give them a ring and deliver a message. Voicemail is nothing new.

    If the government wanted to listen in on someone's telephone calls, a someone had to go out and attach a clip lead to that particular line. Later they could do so at the telephone central office. Nothing has changed, except that it became easier and easier to intercept communications, but when all is said and done, a person still has to evaluate the content, despite technological advances. Anyone who has deep dark secrets to communicate needs to do it, as always, by obscuring or encrypting the message.
  • Fascination will end when the NSA stops illegal, unconstitutional activity

    My fascination with the NSA's abusive, illegal data collection will end when I believe it has been stopped. And I'm not clear that there's anything that could make me believe that.

    Who'd have thought that our government would be stealing our personal data from private companies, using methods that would have you or me in federal prison? What could ever make us trust this government again? My answer is certainly not anything I believe will ever happen - they'd have to disband the NSA and start from scratch, or, at the least, replace everyone above middle management. An 80% budget cut would help as well.
  • Data Privacy Day

    Should be renamed to 'Data Un-Privacy Day'