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Privacy Goes Mainstream

Twenty years ago, I worried a lot about privacy. As a graduate student at the MIT Media lab, I started a mailing list on privacy. I volunteered to be the graduate student representative on the faculty committee on privacy. When MIT implemented a new ID card system that recorded your comings and goings, I spent countless hours talking to everyone–the director of housing, the chief of police, the director of parking…. I asked them, what data are you recording? How long are you going to save it? What kinds of requests for that data are you going to honor?

It was a lonely hobby. Lonely and a bit depressing. Because no one else seemed to care. After a while, it was hard not to shrug my shoulders and say, “maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion.”

It is indeed possible to blow privacy out of proportion. I willingly use a frequent shopper card at the supermarket. They get marketing data that is valuable to them, and I get a discount. I realize that this can be used to manipulate me. For example, if you usually buy brand X, they will give you a fantastic coupon for brand Y that they happen to make a better profit margin on. They’re trying to change your habits. So I try to remember not to change my regular habits without thinking about why. I’m sure I’m manipulated in other ways I’m not as savvy about. But in the end, it’s a trade-off, and I don’t mind.

A very smart man, MIT Professor Jerry Saltzer, once told me: “Privacy is a database correlation problem.” I think that sums up the core issue quite elegantly. It’s not about what the supermarket can do with my data, but what you can do with my data from the supermarket, the garden center, the pharmacy, and the bank all cross-referenced together. Which is why I found it kinda creepy today when I re-loaned my small contribution on kiva.org, and a window popped up asking if I wanted to publicize this on Facebook–including my Facebook photo. It feels intrusive. I clicked “no thanks” and in this case there’s no harm done. But you can start to imagine scenarios where it gets more intrusive.

My Twitter and Facebook accounts are filled with complaints about Facebook privacy today. So filled that people are starting to compalin about the complaints. I laughed at this tweet today (by @johnmoe, RT by @zorbadgreek): “Sorry to hear your Facebook privacy may not be absolute. That’s a real tragedy. Love, The Marine Life of the Gulf of Mexico.” He’s right that Facebook privacy is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, and the gulf oil spill may well emerge as one of the great tragedies of American history. But in another sense, it’s a very big deal: it’s an awakening. A public awakening. People are recognizing privacy as a real issue of concern. Worrying about your privacy is suddenly mainstream. And this I think will also ultimately be seen as a notable moment in history–a turning point.

Categories: privacy
  1. May 16, 2010 at 11:42 am

    Good post, Amy. I think the main difference between what people experience with the frequent shopper card and with Facebook boils down to two assumptions:
    – what is collected vs. what is revealed
    – what people think they’re sharing vs. what they are publishing

    Companies and governments collect data on us all the time. The DHS is tasked with correlating those databases, too. But you can do a lot with this data without revealing identities. And I think people have come to assume that much less data will be revealed than will be collected. Consider what Netflix and Amazon can do to personally recommend things to you based on your + other people’s watching and purchasing habits, without revealing others’ identities.

    Similarly, when you give someone an opportunity to share to a select group of people, you don’t assume that’s a publication to the world. When you friend someone on Netflix to share viewing habits with him or her, you don’t implictly share your viewing habits to everyone else.

    I think Facebook has broken these assumptions: they reveal way more about what data they collect than you’d initially assume, and they by default publish what you share. Sure, you can dial these features down, but placing the user in this state by default is what’s catching people by surprise.

  1. May 31, 2010 at 12:25 pm

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