Privacy is not dead, just becoming impossible

The connectedness of the internet restores the community's ability to observe and moderate behaviour for our own protection. Terrorism and the rise of anti-social behaviours makes this imperative. Anonymity and privacy were an accident of history when the size of communities grew faster than our ability to keep them connected. That has changed now. Privacy is becoming impossible again, whether we like it or not.

There has been a fine little debate between a few of us on Google+. I thought I'd move some of it over here as a permanent post. I've written before about the end of privacy but we touched on some fresh topics in this latest round.

The discussion started with Riitta sharing an article from the Atlantic, which said

Should you have to use your real name online? It's an issue that's long simmered among social media critics and supporters alike. On one end of the spectrum, there's 4chan, where everything is anonymous. On the other, there are Facebook and Google Plus... My instincts had strongly pointed to requiring real names; my experience in the comment trenches of different websites has led me to believe that pure anonymity online creates a short-circuiting of our social software. It seemed natural to believe that attaching a persistent, real name to one's online identity more accurately modeled our real-world social space. I've changed my mind. The kind of naming policy that Facebook and Google Plus have is actually a radical departure from the way identity and speech interact in the real world. They attach identity more strongly to every act of online speech than almost any real world situation does... Imagine you're walking down the street and you say out loud, "Down with the government!" For all non-megastars, the vast majority of people within earshot will have no idea who you are... Let's not pretend that what Google and Facebook are doing has long-established precedents and therefore these companies are only doing what they're doing to mimic real life. They are creating tighter links between people's behavior and their identities than has previously existed in the modern world.

Raphael said

As people are aware that their comments will stay public and persistent, they will look more carefully at what they say, much like they do in more professional oriented social networks like LinkedIn and Viadeo. That means they will say less than they want to at first (self-censorship)... Which opens a window of opportunity for a more anonymous social network to appear

Personally I have no use for an anonymous network. I live in a free country and I work for myself. My tastes in pornography are within the law. I answer to no man and I stand by anything I say ... or I retract it :)

I understand the need for some people to have anonymity: homosexuals in Muslim countries, intellectuals in Australia, the clinically paranoid everywhere... but I do feel the demand for anonymity is overstated. I distrust anyone who feels the need to be anonymous. Personally I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees.

In the Atlantic article, Madrigal slips in the word "modern" in the last sentence. For 99% of human history those around you knew far more about you than Google ever will. We lived in small communities. We were born and died in the same place. Your neighbours knew when you whacked your kids, they knew the state of your bowels. if somethign weas stolen they had a pretty good idea who did it. If you shouted "down with the government" they knew exactly who you were, so you better damn mean it, and not be some teenager intoxicated by rebellion and half-baked idealism (and anonymity). This whole idea of anonymity and privacy is a passing modern phenomenon - and incidentally it is the root of many modern ills. It was fun while it lasted but the internet is evaporating it again. Get over it.

Jan said

Anonymity goes hand in hand with privacy and both can be argued to be fundamental rights in a democratic society. If you want to prevent unlawful acts done under the protection of anonymity, no law is going to help you - the unlawful element by their very definition will not follow the rule of law and the right of anonymity is only stripped from the law abiding citizens.

and cited the EFF website on anonymity.
Ryan argued

Suggesting the internet experience ought to resemble an ancient view of human existence comes across like "that experience really sucked, let's go back to it." I can appreciate that many modern problems have historical precedent (and that they're often not as bad as we make them out to be), but the comparison is absurd. I don't want to know the state of your bowels, or your other tastes for that matter. That knowledge might soil the quality of more meaningful exchange between two people. I don't distrust anyone and everyone who feels compelled to have some anonymity online - I understand why someone wouldn't want every discussion or exchange they have to be part of a permanent, searchable record. I DO distrust those who say you shouldn't be able to have it if you want it.

I never said "nobody has a right to anonymity". In fact I mentioned several valid use cases. And the Anonymity link from Jan lists several more. Nevertheless I can present valid use cases where theft is a reasonable action, or even killing. Presenting a few emotive situations doesn't make a rational argument. I believe there are many more undesirable use cases for anonymity, such as stalking, trolling, vandalism, terrorism, extortion, character assassination, organised crime, and paedophilia.

Nor did I say let's go back to living in a preindustrial society (that's what I mean by "recent"). My point is that humans have adapted to living in a state of close intimacy for most of the last 100,000 years and now we have to again. I'm not saying that is a desirable or undesirable thing. I'm making a rational observation of fact. To desire to stop that incoming tide is the irrational response, not mine.

So my case is that we shouldn't leap to the assumption that anonymity is some fundamental human right. It hasn't been for most of our history; privacy only was possible in the situation where sheer numbers overwhelmed our ability to remain connected as a community; and that connectedness has been inevitably restored by technology whether you like it or not. It is not just the internet. Mobile communications, cameras in every phone and building, RFID, smart dust... Connectivity and intimacy are being restored - fast.

If you want to take a fundamentalist position beyond rational argument, I predict much unhappiness for you because privacy will go no matter how much you shout against the tide. Anonymity empowers the evil more than the good. Technology puts forces in the hands of evil that are unprecedented, e.g. nukes. I predict society will return to a more connected state including a reduction in privacy in order to moderate the behaviour of the community. We have to. A few more 9/11s will make that clear.

And you know what? Most people don't care. They sell their life story for a few loyalty points. They happily fill in shopper profiles. I quite like the idea of only having to put up with advertising that is actually relevant to me. And that if I fall down a hole somebody will come looking for me.

I'm opening these ideas up to the wider community on this blog to see what you think.

[Update: the corollary is it is up to all of us to ensure that the result is Big Uncle not Big Brother ]


Living in Public: What Happens When You Throw Privacy Out

Fascinating article but like all similar ones the only negative conclusion it can come up with are
1) "personalised ads are creepy". I think that says more about the person's level of paranoia than anything else. I filter out 95% of Google ads: i don't even see them. When i do, i appreciate their relevance for optimising my time.
2) "burglars might know when you are out". Most burglars are of sub-normal intelligence, so i think this is asking a lot of them. For any burglars, they'll know when you are out by seeing you leave: most burglars have a lot of spare time.

I'm always banging on about how privacy is now impossible and we need to move on from it. This article hasn't changed my mind.

transparency of intent

"Google Related is a good opportunity for Google to track all the pages you visit and to offer something useful in return."

Even some in the EFF agree privacy is impossible

It is ironic that the following remarks came from John Perry Barlow, a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an interview with the BBC

Privacy for the individual is going away and I don't think there is anyway to stop that. The Electronic Frontier Foundation tries to slow that process as much as possible because there are a lot of people who still believe they want privacy. I don't happen to be one of them personally...

The reason that privacy was never put into the [US] constitution is that the people that wrote it didn't have any. They all lived in small agricultural towns where everybody knew everything. Ultimately I think that having personal secrets is a stimulus to social dysfunction and pathology and what we need to be working on, rather than maintaining privacy, is maintaining the ability to respect difference - different kinds of people.


What a coincidence Rob, a similar thread on HBR blog was posted a couple of days ago.

You are right, most people sell their life story for a few loyalty points. On numerous occasions we are asked to provide name, telephone and address details, what happens with those is a question mark.

Another aspect is how anonymous is anonymous? Is it like an ostrich hiding its head in sand? Those with unlawful intent will always find ways to be anonymous as much as they can.


P.S. While writing the comment I noted a small note on the form under the E-mail field: "The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly". Is this anonymity or privacy, or both? In my view anonymity and privacy do go hand in hand, but complete anonymity or complete privacy is a luxury, which probably even the rich and famous can't afford.

Facebook and privacy

I like some of the comments on that HBR thread:

you don't have 1,600 "friends" you have 1,600 strangers that don't give much of a meaningful damn about you and aren't any more helpful than a random anonymous user on an Internet forum. Real world math probably gives you 120 friend and relatives, of which you probably keep up regularly with 20-40. The less real-life time and fewer meaningful real-life events you share in the real world - the less you are anyone's "friend". All you have is a bunch of distant acquaintances and strangers.

The fact is that every trend has its apex. Facebook and other social media sites is just a trend. A certain percentage of people will play with it to be hip, social, popular, etc. But there is a limit to that demographic and its attention span. Facebook is just like watching porn, you read about, chat with, ogle at, random people.

Nicely acerbic. Sadly only partly true. The obsession with parading one's party-vomiting in open webpages may fade, but that doesn't change the basic premise that most of what we do in such a connected world is still traceable.

The coolest thing to do now, is to deactivate your Facebook account. Social media fatigue has settled in amongst my artist and designer friends and colleagues—in Toronto, New York City, Amsterdam and Paris. Even economists in Italy and accountants in France. It's refreshing.

Personally I only ever had a placeholder page on facebook and i wish I hadn't buckled to social pressure even that far. That doesn't change the fact that much of my life leaves little glowing digital footprints.

And this gem...

In 1955, at the height of his career there were 205 Elvis inpersonators worldwide. By 2002, there were 43,560 Elvis inpersonators worldwide. That means by 2017, everyone on the planet will be an Elvis impersonator. If you believe in trends and extrapolations therefrom, you had better start working on your version of "Love Me Tender."

But the key message of the post was great: "privacy is a luxury" not a right.

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