New Privacy Arguments are Needed

2012-01-08 4-minute read

Another decent article on online privacy was published by the NYT this morning. The article documents the collection and centralized aggregation of consumer data online. It ends with a strong message about consumers becoming the “product” - which echoes what Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian have been saying for decades.

The problem with this critique is that it doesn’t go far enough. Chomsky and Bagdikian didn’t say readers are the product of modern journalism and that’s bad because nobody wants to be a product. They critiqued the model because it produces terrible journalism and democracy suffers as a result.

Similarly, the online trading of audiences and the invasion of our privacy that results has more important implications than “don’t be a sucker” which seems to be the gist of the privacy argument these days. Honestly, I don’t stay awake at night worrying that Nike knows I’m looking for a pair of sneakers, or even that they know my income.

I do stay awake at night worrying that people are tagging my photo on Facebook, which could allow the New York Police Dept to submit a photo of protesters to Facebook and get a list of names and addresses of the people in the photo. Or it could allow the police to track my movements via existing networks of surveillance cameras by matching my image to my name. Would that require a search warrant? How would that impact my trust in my government to know that my movements are being tracked? Or worse, to know they might be tracked but I’ll never know if they are or aren’t?

Many governments (including the US) have sordid histories of infiltrating political organizations and intentionally sowing dissent. Having access to activists’ purchasing habits provides a treasure trove of material for this purpose that previously was labor intensive for cops to collect. It also provides leverage during interrogation, a time of heightened emotional vulnerability where the mere mention of a private detail of one’s life can have a powerful impact. How can we prevent law enforcement from having access to these details of our lives?

And then there’s the dragnet. A central database of consumer habits provides a tantalizing collection of information that could be searched for people who fit a profile of a crime. Is solving the crime at hand worth the invasion of privacy that results from people being investigating only based on their consumer habits? How would we measure the impact an investigation like this would have on our confidence in democracy and government?

The corporate advertisers promoting this kind of data collection argue that these problems are the price of progress. However, the ideology behind these technology developments is capitalism, not some intrinsic aspect of the Internet or network communications. Historically, the Internet has developed based on a drive toward de-centralization. Email and web sites, the bedrock of Internet activity, are based on these principles: anyone can add their own email server or web server and everyone can seamlessly access it. In contrast, the logic of capitalism as it relates to the Internet, is one of centralization and aggregating data. Facebook and Google want you to use their platforms for all your online activities so they have as complete a picture as possible of what you like and do. As the New York Times article describes, companies like Rubicon want to track all your movements and aggregate that data for profit.

We have a choice. We can carefully evaluate our use of corporate services and consider the implications it has not only on our lives but on society as a whole. And, we can choose to use and support services that promote open standards and interoperability that will respect our personal privacy values.

Want a practical example? Friendica is software designed to allow you to post status alerts, photos, videos and other information about yourself in a way similar to Facebook. However, it has one big difference: you can host your account on any server running the software anywhere in the world. You can still “friend” people on different servers, but we don’t have to all trust the same organization to host it. Furthermore, Friendica allows you to post once and automatically cross-post to your Twitter, Facebook or other similar services. Sound good? You are welcome to try out an account on the May First/People Link install: