Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: IT Security in the Snowden Era

It's not too late for privacy

Even if we accepted the ridiculous premise that privacy is at odds with progress, no it's not too late, for a couple of reasons.

Have you heard the news? "Privacy is dead!"

The message is urgent. It's often shouted in prominent headlines, with an implied challenge. The new masters of the digital universe urge the masses: C'mon, get with the program! Innovate! Don't be so precious! Don't you grok that information wants to be free? Old-fashioned privacy is holding us back!

The stark choice posited between privacy and digital liberation is rarely examined with much intellectual rigor. Often, "privacy is dead" is just a tired fatalistic response to the latest breach or eye-popping digital development, like facial recognition, or a smartphone's location monitoring. In fact, those who earnestly assert that privacy is over are almost always trying to sell us something, be it sneakers, or a political ideology, or a wanton digital business model.

Is it really too late for privacy? Is the "genie out of the bottle"? Even if we accepted the ridiculous premise that privacy is at odds with progress, it's not too late, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the pessimism (or barely disguised commercial opportunism) generally confuses secrecy for privacy. And secondly, frankly, we ain't seen nothin' yet!

Conflating privacy and secrecy

Technology certainly has laid us bare. Behavioral modeling, facial recognition, Big Data mining, natural language processing and so on have given corporations X-Ray vision into our digital lives. While exhibitionism has been cultivated and normalized by the informopolists, even the most guarded social network users may be defiled by data prospectors who, without consent, upload their contact lists, pore over their photo albums, and mine their shopping histories.

So yes, a great deal about us has leaked out into what some see as an infinitely extended neo-public domain. And yet we can be public and retain our privacy at the same time. Just as we have for centuries of civilized life.

It's true that privacy is a slippery concept. In 2006, noted privacy scholar noted "Privacy is a concept in disarray. Nobody can articulate what it means. As one commentator has observed, privacy suffers from 'an embarrassment of meanings'."

Some people seem defeated by privacy's definitional difficulties, yet information privacy is simply framed, and corresponding data protection laws are elegant and readily understood.

Privacy means that organizations behave as though it's a privilege to know us. Privacy can involve businesses and governments giving up a little bit of power.

Information privacy is basically a state where those who know us are restrained in what they do with the knowledge they have about us. Privacy is about respect, and protecting individuals against exploitation. It is not about secrecy or even anonymity. There are few cases where ordinary people really want to be anonymous. We actually want businesses to know - within limits - who we are, where we are, what we've done and what we like ... but we want them to respect what they know, to not share it with others, and to not take advantage of it in unexpected ways. Privacy means that organizations behave as though it's a privilege to know us. Privacy can involve businesses and governments giving up a little bit of power.

Many have come to see privacy as literally a battleground. The grassroots Cryptoparty movement came together around the heady belief that privacy means hiding from the establishment. Cryptoparties teach participants how to use Tor and PGP, and they spread a message of resistance. They take inspiration from the Arab Spring where encryption has of course been vital for the security of protestors and organizers. One Cryptoparty I attended in Sydney opened with tributes from Anonymous, and a number of recorded talks by activists who ranged across a spectrum of political issues like censorship, copyright, national security and Occupy.

I appreciate where they're coming from, for the establishment has always overplayed its security hand, and run roughshod over privacy. Even traditionally moderate Western countries have governments charging like china shop bulls into web filtering and ISP data retention, all in the name of a poorly characterized terrorist threat. When governments show little sympathy for netizenship, and absolutely no understanding of how the web works, it's unsurprising that sections of society take up digital arms in response.

Yet going underground with encryption is a limited privacy stratagem, because do-it-yourself encryption is incompatible with the majority of our digital dealings. The most nefarious and least controlled privacy offenses are committed not by government but by Internet companies, large and small. To engage fairly and squarely with businesses, consumers need privacy protections, comparable to the safeguards against unscrupulous merchants we enjoy, uncontroversially, in traditional commerce. There should be reasonable limitations on how our Personally Identifiable Information (PII) is used by all the services we deal with. We need department stores to refrain from extracting health information from our shopping habits, merchants to not use our credit card numbers as customer reference numbers, shopping malls to not track patrons by their mobile phones, and online social networks to not x-ray our photo albums by biometric face recognition.

Encrypting everything we do would only put it beyond reach of the companies we obviously want to deal with. Look for instance at how the cryptoparties are organized. Some cryptoparties manage their bookings via the US event organizer Eventbrite to which attendants have to send a few personal details. So, ironically, when registering for a cryptoparty, you can not use encryption!

Modern society has long rested on balanced consumer protection regulations to curb the occasional excesses of business and government. Therefore we ought not to respond to online privacy invasions as if the digital economy is a new Wild West. 

The central issue is this: going out in public does not neutralize privacy. It never did in the physical world and it shouldn't be the case in cyberspace either. Modern society has long rested on balanced consumer protection regulations to curb the occasional excesses of business and government. Therefore we ought not to respond to online privacy invasions as if the digital economy is a new Wild West. We should not have to hide away if privacy is agreed to mean respecting the PII of customers, users and citizens, and restraining what data custodians do with that precious resource.

Data Mining and Data Refining

We're still in the early days of the social web, and the information innovation has really only just begun. There is incredible value to be extracted from mining the underground rivers of data coursing unseen through cyberspace, and refining that raw material into Personal Information.

Look at what the data prospectors and processors have managed to do already.

  • Facial recognition transforms vast stores of anonymous photos into PII, without consent, and without limitation. Facebook's deployment of biometric technology was covert and especially clever. For years they encouraged users to tag people they knew in photos. It seemed innocent enough but through these fun and games, Facebook was crowd-sourcing the facial recognition templates and calibrating their constantly evolving algorithms, without ever mentioning biometrics in their privacy policy or help pages. Even now Facebook's Data Use Policy is entirely silent on biometric templates and what they allow themselves to do with them. 
  • It's difficult to overstate the value of facial recognition to businesses like Facebook when they have just one asset: knowledge about their members and users. Combined with image analysis and content addressable graphical memory, facial recognition lets social media companies work out what we're doing, when, where and with whom. I call it piracy. Billions of everyday images have been uploaded over many years by users for ostensiby personal purposes, without any clue that technology would emerge to convert those pictures into a commercial resource.

The UK department store Tesco for example is said to hold more data about British citizens than the government does. For years data analysts have combed through shopping history for marketing insights, but their predictive powers are growing rapidly.

  • Third party services like Facedeals are starting to emerge, using Facebook's photo resources for commercial facial recognition in public. And the most recent facial recognition entrepreneurs like Name Tag App boast of scraping images from any "public" photo databases they can find. But as we shall see below, in many parts of the world there are restrictions on leveraging public-facing databases, because there is a legal difference between anonymous data and identified information.
  • Some of the richest stores of raw customer data are aggregated in retailer databases. The UK department store Tesco for example is said to hold more data about British citizens than the government does. For years of course data analysts have combed through shopping history for marketing insights, but their predictive powers are growing rapidly. An infamous example is Target's covert development of methods to identify customers who are pregnant based on their buying habits. Some Big Data practitioners seem so enamored with their ability to extract secrets from apparently mundane data, they overlook that PII collected indirectly by algorithm is subject to privacy law just as if it was collected directly by questionnaire. Retailers need to remember this as they prepare to exploit their massive loyalty databases into new financial services ventures.

  • Natural Language Processing (NLP) is the secret sauce in Apple's Siri, allowing her to take commands and dictation. Every time you dictate an email or a text message to Siri, Apple gets hold of telecommunications content that is normally out of bounds to the phone companies. Siri is like a free PA that reports your daily activities back to the secretarial agency. There is no mention at all of Siri in Apple's Privacy Policy despite the limitless collection of intimate personal information.

  • And looking ahead, Google Glass in the privacy stakes will probably surpass both Siri and facial recognition. If actions speak louder than words, imagine the value to Google of seeing through Glass exactly what we do in real time. Digital companies wanting to know our minds won't need us to expressly "like" anything anymore; they'll be able to tell our preferences from our unexpurgated behaviors.

The surprising power of data protection regulations

There's a widespread belief that technology has outstripped privacy law, yet it turns out technology neutral data privacy law copes well with most digital developments. OECD privacy principles (enacted in over 100 countries) and the US FIPPs (Fair Information Practice Principles) require that companies be transarent about what PII they collect and why, and limit the ways in which PII is used for unrelated purposes.

Privacy advocates can take heart from several cases where existing privacy regulations have proven effective against some of the informopolies' trespasses. And technologists and cynics who think privacy is hopeless should heed the lessons.

  • Google StreetView cars, while they drive up and down photographing the world, also collect Wi-Fi hub coordinates for use in geo-location services. In 2010 it was discovered that the StreetView software was also collecting unencrypted Wi-Fi network traffic, some of which contained personal information like user names and even passwords. Privacy Commissioners in Australia, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands and elsewhere found Google was in breach of their data protection laws. Google explained that the collection was inadvertant, apologized, and destroyed all the wireless traffic that had been gathered.

    The nature of this privacy offense has confused some commentators and technologists. Some argue that Wi-Fi data in the public domain is not private, and "by definition" (so they like to say) categorically could not be private. Accordingly some believed Google was within its rights to do whatever it liked with such found data. But that reasoning fails to grasp the technicality that Data Protection laws in Europe, Australia and elsewhere do not essentially distinguish "public" from "private". In fact the word "private" doesn't even appear in Australia's "Privacy Act". If data is identifiable, then privacy rights generally attach to it irrespective of how it is collected.

  • Facebook photo tagging was ruled unlawful by European privacy regulators in mid 2012, on the grounds it represents a collection of PII (by the operation of the biometric matching algorithm) without consent. By late 2012 Facebook was forced to shut down facial recognition and tag suggestions in the EU. This was quite a show of force over one of the most powerful companies of the digital age. More recently Facebook has started to re-introduce photo tagging, prompting the German privacy regulator to reaffirm that this use of biometrics is counter to their privacy laws.

It's never too late

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So, is it really too late for privacy? Outside the United States at least, established privacy doctrine and consumer protections have taken technocrats by surprise. They have found, perhaps counterintuitively, that they are not as free as they thought to exploit all personal data that comes their way.

Privacy is not threatened so much by technology as it is by sloppy thinking and, I'm afraid, by wishful thinking on the part of some vested interests. Privacy and anonymity, on close reflection, are not the same thing, and we shouldn't want them to be! It's clearly important to be known by others in a civilized society, and it's equally important that those who do know us, are reasonably restrained in how they use that knowledge.

By Steve Wilson (@steve_lockstep), Vice President & Principal Analyst, Constellation Research, Inc.

Steve Wilson is Vice President and Principal Analyst at Constellation Research, Inc, focusing on digital identity and privacy. Wilson has over twenty-five years experience in ICT innovation, and research and development. Wilson is credited with numerous breakthroughs in difficult areas of identity infrastructure and governance, including national and industry level authentication frameworks, PKI systems, smartcards, digital credentials, fraud control, and privacy engineering. 

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