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Q&A

Larry Hunter, the Cassandra of digital privacy

Thirty years ago, one man saw what the Internet was about to take away.

Larry Hunter of the University of Colorado.

Larry Hunter of the University of Colorado.

In the mid 1980s, when Mark Zuckerberg was still in diapers, computers ran on floppy disks, and a web was something a spider built, a computer-science graduate student at Yale University started to worry about a problem that would have struck most people as far-fetched.

Larry Hunter began to realize that as computers became bigger parts of our lives, they would come to know more and more about us, whether we liked it or not. They would gather data and build profiles, and this technology would someday have meaningful implications for our privacy and freedom of choice.

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In January 1985 he published a warning essay in the inaugural issue of a techno-revolutionary journal called The Whole Earth Review. “The ubiquity and power of the computer blur the distinction between public and private information,” he wrote. “Our revolution will not be in gathering data—don’t look for TV cameras in your bedroom—but in analyzing information that is already willingly shared.”

In just the past few years, Hunter’s concerns—recently unearthed and reposted on the Smithsonian Magazine’s Paleofuture blog—have come to look almost spookily prescient. His solution, however—new laws to give people property rights over their information—has never come to pass. Today, every time we click a link, shop on Amazon, or retweet a news story, we offer the vast digital world one more free clue about who we are and what we like. All this information is stored and analyzed, bought and sold—last week, it emerged that the FBI and National Security Agency have been collecting this data directly from some of the largest Internet companies. The scope of our private lives is shrinking, and we still don’t really know the implications of this shift.

Hunter is now a professor of computational biology at the University of Colorado Denver, where he creates software that pulls together distant strands of biomedical research. Though he has also kept a finger in the privacy debate, his personal positions on privacy aren’t necessarily what you might think: He encrypts e-mails to friends and extols the privacy benefits of all-cash transactions, but he’s also posted his genetic data online.

Ideas reached out to him for his perspective on how the last 30 years have unfolded, and to ask what he sees as the next big privacy concerns. This transcript was edited from interviews by phone and e-mail.

IDEAS: How do you feel about turning out to be so correct?

‘Advertising is coercive. It creates desires that wouldn’t have existed without it.’

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HUNTER: Well, validation is nice. I wish that some of the suggestions I made in that article had been taken to heart.

IDEAS: Today you have kids of your own, and social media is a huge part of their lives. What do you tell them?

HUNTER: Well, so I try to give them the perspective that it feels just like they’re communicating with their friends, and that it’s ephemeral, but a really much larger group of people is going to see it and it’s going to last for a really long time....The other thing I tell them is pretty much the same lesson I try to teach them about advertising, which is that it may be kind of entertaining and helpful when people are trying to push things on you, but be aware that they’re not for your interest, they’re for their interest.

IDEAS: Why is it so bad if companies like Facebook know about us? Lots of young people see infotracking as a tool that helps them find products they want to buy.

HUNTER: Advertising is coercive. It creates desires that wouldn’t have existed without it, and causes people to behave in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise....Advertising isn’t just about picking a kind of soap; political candidates advertise, and large corporations try to manipulate public opinion by advertising, too.

IDEAS: In your article, you talk about FBI databases and about state interests in this data. Is that still something that concerns you?

HUNTER: Oh my god, the national security state has totally jumped over all that stuff. I think the consequences of government monitoring of people’s behavior are far beyond what I envisioned in that article, and they use a lot more than commercial databases.

IDEAS: What happened to your suggestion that the law should give people a “property interest” in their own information?

HUNTER: I wrote a couple of articles with a sociologist named James Rule that looked in more detail at what that legislation would look like. At one point he got a legislator in Michigan interested in doing something about it and we talked some, but I don’t think a bill was ever actually introduced.... Now that the people who gain such tremendous commercial benefit from using this stuff, the Googles and Facebooks of the world, [have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo], the idea of trying...to enact such a thing in the face of opposition from such powerful forces seems very unlikely.

The biggest data privacy laws that got passed in America, one of them seems really quaint right now—after the Clarence Thomas hearings your video records became the most protected information about you, so what videos you rented back when we had corner video shops are very highly protected....The other one, HIPAA, the protected health information rules, I think are tremendously destructive. I think they have not particularly
protected people from powerful institutions like insurance companies who have a right to all your health information because they’re payers, and they’ve really interfered in all kinds of important ways with biomedical research.

IDEAS: Thirty years from now what do you see as the big information privacy concerns?

HUNTER: I kind of suspect that your genome is going to be everywhere, and they’re all completely unique—you can’t anonymize your genome any more than you can anonymize your signature. The consequences of that are going to be big. I suspect we’ll be able to tell some really important things about you by knowing what your genome is, sort of like Facebook can tell what your interests and behaviors are and what might motivate you to do something, I sort of suspect that knowing your genome will allow me to market to you in more effective ways than ever.

I worry a little about protecting people who have borderline disease areas. The person who is susceptible to excessive gambling—there’s probably some dopamine receptor polymorphism that says, yep, this guy is likely to be a problem gambler, and casinos marketing to him say, come, free chips—seems to me over a line that I’d like to see not crossed. I think we’re going to get there, and I’m not sure how society is going to make its decisions about how to use this stuff.

IDEAS: Many people are apathetic about the information they share on social media, but very attuned to the privacy stakes involved with their genetic information. Does that bode well for passing legislation and establishing norms that will protect that information?

HUNTER: I think people’s intuitions are largely screwy about their genetic information, although we have done something good and important with the Genetic Insurance Non-Discrimination Act, which says that basically genetic information can’t be used to discriminate against you in employment or insurance, and we’ve already had lawsuits that have been won.

So I think the important thing about genomes isn’t going to be keeping them secret, because I think that’s impossible. I think the important thing is making sure that we as a society come to conclusions about what is and isn’t permissible use of that information. Are we going to draw the line to say that people can’t market to you based on it? Judging from history, I’d say the odds are poor.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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