Digital privacy is a challenge for society, not technology

Yesterday I travelled to London to hear Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross talk about resisting the all-seeing eye of the state, private business, and nosy individuals. The event promised to discuss practical measures to protect privacy:

With the rise of the database state and firms profiting from user-profiling, it’s vital to resist surveillance and ensure the integrity of your digital personality. From technologies like PGP and Tor to the arguments that will convince people – friends and family as well as media and politicians – to watch out for their digital rights, this event is your anti-surveillance 101.

From the outset it was clear people were expecting more of a masterclass than an introduction to these topics. Open Rights Group executive director Jim Killock raised a pantomime hiss from the audience by mentioning the controversial advertising company Phorm. Meanwhile the people who turned up wearing Jacquie Smith masks drew a round of applause.

Much of the talk centered around stating the problem: that society’s 20th-century understanding of privacy is at odds with 21st-century technology. Stross’s historical and technological perspective was well matched by Doctorow’s sociological and cultural take. Both speakers covered a range of interesting points backed up by amusing and insightful anecdotes:

  • Stross talked about privacy being a relatively new and fragile concept. The architectural development of the corridor allowed servants to bypass rooms in which their masters were having private conversations. Prior to this practically every conversation would have had witnesses.
  • Doctorow paraphrased Andy Warhol: “in the future everybody will be world-famous for fifteen gigabytes.”
  • Stross defined 20th-century privacy as meaning “no witnesses”, adding, “We are now moving into an era where there will always be a digital witness.”
  • Doctorow said that people who live in built-up areas develop a kind of “cosmopolitan blindness”: they deliberately avoid taking note of other people’s actions and character. Digital surveillance is not bashful in this way: it’s a social retard in its regard for us.
  • Stross wondered about the data we’re gathering today that may come back to bite us in the future once society’s attitudes have changed. He used the example of a comprehensive, searchable index of 1970s parents’ snaps of their kids taking baths or running around naked on the beach: how would today’s paedophile-phobic society treat that information?
  • Doctorow explained that one datum alone isn’t very interesting but correlated information in aggregate is much more powerful. Data-mining algorithms only ever get better. In the future, facial recognition software will be able to pull every photo of you ever uploaded into an ordered, indexed set regardless of where it resides or the metadata associated with it.
  • Both made the point that information contained in databases takes on an air of authority that it might not deserve. Databases often contain errors, and they strip information of its context, therefore database-driven decision-making is fraught with difficulties. In the future, searching for books about living with HIV may make it harder for you to get health insurance, even if you were searching for them for a friend or it was actually someone else using your wireless network who performed the search.
  • Doctorow lamented that repressive measures introduced in the name of security are difficult to get reversed. Liquids are still banned as airline hand-luggage despite the fact that chemists have debunked the threat of a liquid bomb. Politicians are terrified of ditching such “security” policies in case it costs them their career later: if the restrictions were relaxed and a plane then fell out of the sky the media would lambaste the authorities for their “lax” approach. Ironically, if Richard Reid had succeeded, we would still be able to leave our shoes on through airport security because nobody would suspect that a shoe-bomb was a viable threat. Shoes are only inspected now because he failed!
  • Stross commented that bad news sells therefore the media has an interest in scaremongering. The media is really interested in chasing profit, not balance.

Given the knowledgeable crowd I was not surprised to hear those I spoke to afterwards express disappointment that meeting failed to cover more ground. Several people thought that the talk suffered from a lack of focus and there was a general feeling that Doctorow and Stross had preached to a choir whose members were left unsure about what they should be singing. I was personally expecting a discussion on practical privacy solutions so the focus on re-stating the problem, which most of the audience already understood, left me feeling more could have been achieved.

The most useful aspects of the talk were the sound-bites provided by both speakers. Through such analogies and metaphors, the concerns of the privacy vanguard are transformed into stories that promote understanding, discussion and the desire for change amongst society at large. They are the ammunition with which we should be engaging in conversation the people around us: families, friends and foes; children, colleagues, civil servants, and councillors; managers, marketeers and MPs.

In summing up, Stross said, “the relationship between privacy, security and the state is broken. It is up to us to fix it through public discourse.” He added, “The enemies of privacy profit from ignorance.” As technology increases the ability of powerful bodies to further their selfish interests at our expense it’s tempting to believe equal-and-opposite technological solutions will be sufficient to redress the balance. However, while technology has a role to play on both sides, in practice tools like Tor and Pretty Good Privacy are only stop-gaps in the battle to preserve our digital rights.

Protecting ourselves from Big Brother will require a new social contract for the digital age and this can only be brought about through cultural change.

Please leave me a comment with your ideas for enhancing our privacy in the 21st century.

2009-05-13 Edited to add some link love for other interesting blog posts about the event:

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