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September 16, 2012
“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.”
Garret Keizer and perhaps Kenneth Karst have created (or more accurately “discovered”) a privacy justification based on group theory and social Darwinism. Inspired and somewhat radical, it is brilliant! It resets the privacy debate by eliminating the crackpot theory, the “only-criminals need privacy” theory, or the “I don’t care if anyone knows about me” defense (debunking list below).Hypothetical references to dictators rise above metaphor. With very little research, they could be replaced by historical examples. This is an entirely new approach and Gerret has flushed it out beyond a mere hypothesis. I might have expected this new twist on privacy (it’s roots, incarnations and implications) to come from Steve Levy, book author and technical for both Wired and The Boston Globe). But this article makes it clear that Keizer will become a new hero in the effort to instill upon everyone the desirable nature of Privacy. My area of research shifts privacy from a legislative policy or vendor promise into a technology that empowers citizens to randomize or anonymize their footprints. But in this field, I often come up against those who argue that privacy is unnecessary, wrong or that it contradicts national interests. This often leads to a lengthy defense and explanation. Arguments against the need for privacy: 1) It is not important to have privacy. (This sometimes takes the form: “If you have something to hide, then you must be doing something immoral or illegal”). 2) Individuals concerned about privacy from their own government are conspiracy theorists, tax cheats, or paranoid about their own government. (This is really a variant of #1) 3) One must surrender personal information to get the advantages of internet-connected tools (e.g. Google search, navigation, social networks, etc). On the surface, this arguments seems axiomatic. Regarding #2, Keizer demonstrates that people who love their country (and even their current government) are constructive and beneficial to both when they take control of their own privacy. But what about #3? Now here’s one to chew on. (I hope that it becomes Garret Keizer’s next topic)… Most of us have a relationship with Google, Yahoo, Bing or other free web service providers. Some of us realize that although we use and benefit from their services, we are not their ‘customers’. They derive revenue from paid marketing partners by matching the “return path” of targeted ads. That is, they match client advertising messages to an individual’s searches, email, online docs, navigation, etc Most of us think of this exchange—personal information for free services—as a Faustian bargain. We are peripherally aware of it; we tolerate it; and we hope that we can trust web service providers to maintain our privacy beyond a narrow & well-defined marketing function. We also trust them to avoid aggregating and mining the intersection of our data from various functions, services or sites. That’s one heck of a lot of trust! As data is compiled and aggregated, it becomes remarkably valuable and it quickly becomes a lens into our most intimate affairs. Consider the available data (not necessarily disparate) concerning your spending, marriage, school, house, taxes, travel, video rentals, etc). Now suppose that you add all of your personal email and a transcript of your phone calls. What if you also add a log of everywhere you walk or drive? But recently, there has been a remarkably good development (good for you and good even for Google). It’s called ‘Blind Signaling and Response’. With new data aggregation technique, it is possible for Google and others to do exactly what they do today (and to generate the same marketing revenue) without compiling, storing, transmitting or revealing any personal information about the internet users that they target with advertising. Moreover, the service provider can ‘prove’ that they are handling data in this way. Contrary to expectations based on a classic value exchange, they could still demonstrate to marketers that the ads are optimally directed and with a very high degree of personalization. Yet they can do this while demonstrating that they lack any capacity to use the information in other ways or to even identify the parties in an advertising exchange. The major internet services are not yet demonstrating this proof of “Blind Signaling and Response”, but they are gradually assessing the urgency with which the public expects them to do so. Some services are concerned that they may lose an opportunity to market user data in the future and others are simply uncomfortable with the latest technology. To be fair, the technique still requires academic vetting and commercialization. But it is coming. And it will change the way that we view privacy, freedom individual rights.