Big Uncle: ceding privacy for security in our daily lives

We have been discussing Big Uncle, the benevolent aspects of the loss of privacy to security systems. Today we will look at how most of us willingly surrender privacy every day and will do so increasingly online (except for the most paraniod among us: you know who you are and so do we).

Even in modern times we concede privacy to others who watch over us. Doormen are allowed to watch our coming and going in return for their protection. Neighbours are given permission to spy on our homes through friendships or within the framework of Neighbourhood Watch. Local police patrol our streets, allowed to pry with more freedom than other citizens.

We agree as a condition of employment to clock in and out of the job, to pass through access control systems, to let our employer watch and police our web surfing and email at work, to be answerable for our whereabouts and activities during work hours.

High levels of privacy are only a phenomenon of large wealthy cities. In poorer urban communities and small towns and villages, people draw together and expose their lives to family and neighbours in return for the security and protection it brings.

We concede privacy by delegating trust in return for protection. It is a permission-based process which we have some control over, at least as a group if not always as individuals. There is no reason why electronic security cannot operate the same way.

We will allow access control systems to know more about us (e.g. biometrics) so that they can recognise when our identity has been stolen. Any human gatekeeper knows that a wealthy senior woman is unlikely to look like a 14-year-old school-boy, but currently anybody on the Web can pass themselves off as someone else with a minimum of credentials. If two things are known about us already, it should be OK to put them together in order to spot the unexpected, just as a human might do.

We will allow authorities to find us via our mobile phone when we have crashed the car or had a heart attack or wandered with dementia, but trust them not to tell our spouse we are philandering or to map our political activities.

For another vision of this kind of paternalism (and the origin of the title for this paper), see Big Uncle says chill out, New Scientist 20 October 2001: “Combining expert systems containing the knowledge and experience of scores of behavioural psychologists with the CCTV cameras could predict the consequences of the human interactions being surveyed. Is that man getting angry? Is that child too trusting?”

We will delegate trust to peers (family, colleagues, and friends) to allow them to access our email when we are sick, to vouch for us when we forget our passwords, to ask the building access system where we are.

Most of all, we will recognize that rights to privacy that we conceded and the trust we delegated in the physical domain can logically have an equivalent in the electronic world, so long as it is on the same terms.


Privacy vs looting rioters

RIM issued a statement saying it will comply with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, "and co-operate fully with the Home Office and UK police forces" [to track down rioters using Blackberries to coordinate attacks] RIPA is a much-criticised piece of legislation that allows for the surveillance and investigation of communications data and user accounts if the Home Secretary (or a senior police officer, depending on the data required) deems it necessary for crime fighting purposes. It's often been slated as a snooper's charter. But I think even hardened privacy advocates might, this time, be happy to see it harnessed to bring the violent looters who have sullied London to heel.

New Scientist (not noted for its right-wing views)

Wanna have a bet on how many of those Blackberries turn out to be stolen?

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