Privacy, publicity and open data

Intelligence deputy to America: Rethink privacy -

This one should be a quickie.

A fascinating article came out of CNN today: “Intelligence deputy to America: Rethink privacy“.

This is a topic I’ve had opinions about for some time. My somewhat pessimistic view is that privacy is an illusion, and that more and more historic vestiges of so-called privacy are slipping through our fingers with the advent of increasingly ubiquitous and promiscuous technologies, the results of which are not all necessarily bad (take a look at just how captivating the Facebook Newsfeed is!).

Still, the more reading I’ve been doing lately about international issues and conflict, the more I agree with Danny Weitzner that there needs to be a robust dialogue about what it means to live in a post-privacy era, and what demands we must place on those companies, governments and institutions that store data about us, about the habits to which we’re prone and about the friends we keep. He sums up the conversation space thus:

Privacy is not lost simply because people find these services useful and start sharing location. Privacy could be lost if we don’t start to figure what the rules are for how this sort of location data can be used. We’ve got to make progress in two areas:

  • technical: how can users sharing and usage preferences be easily communicated to and acted upon by others? Suppose I share my location with a friend by don’t want my employer to know it. What happens when my friend, intentionally or accidentally shares a social location map with my employer or with the public at large? How would my friend know that this is contrary to the way I want my location data used? What sorts of technologies and standards are needed to allow location data to be freely shared while respective users usage limitation requirements?
  • legal: what sort of limits ought there to be on the use of location data?
  • can employers require employees to disclose real time location data?
  • is there any difference between real-time and historical location data traces? (I doubt it)
  • under what conditions can the government get location data?

There’s clearly a lot to think about with these new services. I hope that we can approach this from the perspective that lots of location data will being flowing around and realize the the big challenge is to develop social, technical and legal tools to be sure that it is not misused.

I want to bring some attention to his first point about the technical issues surrounding New Privacy. This is the realm where we play, and this is the realm where we have the most to offer. This is also an area that’s the most contentious and in need of aggressive policies and leadership, because the old investment model that treats silos of data as gold mines has to end.

I think Tim O’Reilly is really talking about this when he lambasts Google’s OpenSocial, proclaiming, “It’s the data, stupid!” The problem of course is what open data actually means in the context of user control and ownership, in terms of “licensing” and in terms of proliferation. These are not new problems for technologists as permissioning dates back to the earliest operating systems, but the problem becomes infinitely complex now that it’s been unbounded and non-technologists are starting to realize a) how many groups have been collecting data about them and b) how much collusion is going on to analyze said data. (Yeah, those discounts that that Safeway card gets you make a lot more money for Safeway than they save you, you better believe it!)

With Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence, taking an equally pessimistic (or Apocalyptic) attitude about privacy, I think there needs to be a broader, eyes-wide-open look at who has what data about whom and what they’re doing about — and perhaps more importantly — how the people about whom the data is being collected can get in on the game and get access to this data in the same way you’re guaranteed access and the ability to dispute your credit report. The same thing should be true for web services, the government and anyone else who’s been monitoring you, even if you’ve been sharing that information with them willingly. In another post, I talked about the value of this data — calling it “Data Capital“. People need to realize the massive amount of value that their data adds to the bottom line of so many major corporations (not to mention Web 2.0 startups!) and demand ongoing and persistent access to it. Hell, it might even result in better or more accurate data being stored in these mega-databases!

Regardless, when representatives from the government start to say things like:

Those two generations younger than we are have a very different idea of what is essential privacy, what they would wish to protect about their lives and affairs. And so, it’s not for us to inflict one size fits all, said Kerr, 68. Protecting anonymity isn’t a fight that can be won. Anyone that’s typed in their name on Google understands that.

Our job now is to engage in a productive debate, which focuses on privacy as a component of appropriate levels of security and public safety, Kerr said. I think all of us have to really take stock of what we already are willing to give up, in terms of anonymity, but [also] what safeguards we want in place to be sure that giving that doesn’t empty our bank account or do something equally bad elsewhere.

…you know that it’s time we started framing the debate on our own terms… thinking about what this means to the Citizen Centric Web and about how we want to become the gatekeepers for the data that is both rightfully ours and that should willfully be put into the service of our own needs and priorities.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

8 thoughts on “Privacy, publicity and open data”

  1. Privacy is not one of our inalienable rights as americans. At least in these times when we are being attacked from within our own borders. Personally, I think Nobody has the right to participate in Any Crime. I also think we should have a national database of All personal DNA information. Would it not be in the american spirit, as our constitutional signers imagined a changing government to go with the times, to have America totally crime-free in the future. If we start Today, we will get it done, and if we start Tommorrow, well, theres always tommorrow….

  2. It always sounds so simple and safe to say that in order to protect us from the terrible people of the world we need to give up certain rights or face death.

    But it is not so simple, for example. Everyone who watches the series 24 seems to love when Jack Bauer essentially beats, tortures, or shoots a bad guy to spill his guts about some evil act about to transpire. Everybody loves Jack because he saves the day and those who love 24 cannot seem to separate what happens on TV series with the real world.

    In the real world the Jack Bauers do not always have the right man or women. Innocent people are tortured and killed on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. In the real world those who have taken an oath to represent us in government or sworn an oath to protect us are more often unethical, and immoral than the TV persona we would like to believe in.

    If a family member of yours wrote an e-mail to you telling you of a matter they were not proud of or hiding, say an affair, they’re gay, that they bought/viewed some porn, or that they cheated their employer in some way, they are expecting a certain level of discreet privacy from you.

    Now say you decide to run for office, or run a business, and over time you become pretty influential. And let’s say that you decide to take a stand against something that people with more money, power and influence than you are for. Out of no where comes a disclosure of the fact that you knew about the issue that your family member had confided in you. The scandal not only tears you down, it tears your family, and more specifically the family member with the secret down commits suicide. Your business closes up, your friends distance themselves, etc, etc. Think it can’t happen?

    Take a look at the McCarthy era, blacklists, the secret files of the FBI’s Edgar Hoover. Now imagine what is possible when the government can siphon all the electronic communications in the US and use powerful computers to do analysis creating massive files of those who had affairs, those who cheated on their taxes, those who have sexual fetishes, etc, etc. Now imagine that they want you to do something for them that you would normally tell them to get lost. Is all of your communications over the phone, the internet, and US mail squeaky clean. Or is there something somewhere that would cause you to blush, be ashamed, or be ridiculed? Would it be enough to make you conform to government demands against your will?

    No, there is no need for a new definition of privacy. What we really need is a new oath of office for all of our elected officials and government employees. It should go something like, I will defend the constitution, I will defend it ethically and morally, and if I am found to violate this oath in any manner I will face either the death penalty or life imprisonment dependingon on the severity of my offense. In China, a government official failed to protect the people, he was put to death. If government types are going to say we need to give up our privacy in order to be protected it seems fair to say that they should give up their lives if they fail to protect the people from corruption, and unethical and immoral acts by its elected and hired personnel.

    They want us to give up our privacy but they don’t want to tell us how many people are Dick Cheney’s staff, or even who. They won’t tell us who was in a meeting 7 years ago with Cheney over a discussion about energy, somehting that has skyrocketed its costs. They lost e-mails of record which would show who knew about what when it comes to the Whitehouse outing of a CIA operative’s real name, and who knew and orchestrated the firing of attorneys because they would not unethically protect republicans while manufacturing cases against democrats.

    As for Iraq and terroists. Iraq was invaded for oil, it had no ties to 9/11 nor Bin Laden. As for Bin Laden, Bush will never really seek to find him since he is of Saudi Royal Blood and the Bush Family is financially connected to the Royal Family. As for the risk of being attacked again and again, even Bin Laden sought to bring down only the World Trade Center and if we have the courage and will to see our government and certain oil interests in the real light of day we will discover that those who attacked us felt they were justified from decades of betrayal, exploitation, and our presence on holy land on foreign soil.

    We don’t need a new definition of privacy, we need a new definition of what it means to be an ethical and moral government representative, corpoate leader, or all around American. Until that happens I don’t want to hear about any American giving up his or her right to privacy. If yo want to end terror, end exploitation or in other words end trading beads for oil. All the promises of oil companies to help the countries they asked permission to take their oil have not been kept. If you want to end the anger and hatred in the world, you simply need to end the unethical and immoral running of the oil industry.

  3. Not that the Authorotarian state as described in the previous response doesn’t sound wonderful, but there are several safeguards built in that make Privacy a personal inalienable right. Despite the current Administrations machinations otherwise, the 4th amendment guarantees rights to privacy unless otherwise required as proved to a warrant issuing court. Proper usage of the First amendment requires certain levels of privacy in order for true freedoms of speech. religion, assembly, and press. Additionally, the SCotUS has ruled on more than one occassion that the 9th Amendment covers the right to privacy by citizens.

    Privacy is an intrinsic and fundamentally necessary right of a free society. Its horrible that you would give up your freedom and privacy to live in a police/nanny state.

  4. “If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy” (James Madison)

    Americans now is a bunch of cowards – something that the Founders Fathers did not expect.

  5. Wow the first comment really scares the crap out of me that some people think that way. I don’t know why people seem to think the government can protect you. Any reasonable person realizes that by the time the cops get to your house someone has already been killed or robbed. How anyone thinks giving up your address and your web-habits up to the government is going to make you any safer is beyond me. Its up to you to protect yourself and the more people that realize that the safer our society will be.

  6. just a historical footnote: Robert Cailliau, co-inventor of the Web, felt that it was best WWW users should have the quivalent of a drivers licence

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