Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Privacy? We Got Over It.

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal had an interesting Op/Ed on privacy, highlighting contemporary expectations of privacy.

Information Age - WSJ.com

Privacy? We Got Over It.

August 25, 2008; Page A11

In 1988, Congress banned video stores from disclosing the titles of films that people rent. The issue arose because in the battle to block Robert Bork from the Supreme Court, someone leaked his video rentals.

Fast-forward to this summer, and a federal judge hearing a $1 billion copyright complaint by Viacom ordered YouTube to turn over online records about which computer addresses were used to watch which videos on the site. The judge dismissed privacy concerns as "speculative." How quickly our expectations of privacy have changed.

Privacy advocates objected that with access to Internet protocol addresses, it would be possible to track who watched what. Hundreds of millions of people have watched videos on YouTube since its founding in 2005 -- indeed, by one estimate, virtually everyone who uses the Web has watched a video on the site. This makes it surprising that there was such little public outcry about this potential loss of privacy. Google, which owns YouTube, has complied with the judge's order by using encryption to hide individual records, but it is indeed "speculative" how much people would object to disclosing this online behavior.

This incident is a telling moment. We seem to be following the advice of Scott McNealy, chairman of Sun Microsystems, who in 1999 said, "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." And the observation by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison: "The privacy you're concerned about is largely an illusion. All you have to give up is your illusions, not any of your privacy."

These comments could be dismissed as technology executives trying to minimize complaints about technology. But whatever we say about how much we value privacy, a close look at our actual behavior suggests we have gotten over it. A recent study by AOL of privacy in Britain found that 84% of people said they would not disclose details about their income online, but in fact 89% of them willingly did.

Amazon closely records our taste in books, Gmail scans our emails to deliver relevant ads, and electronic tolls track where we drive. Profiles on MySpace and Facebook are accessible, forever. The disclosure that Judge Bork liked to rent British comedies seems quaint in comparison.

Records about us are no longer kept in scattered manila files in dusty cabinets, but digitally, which means in permanent records that can be combined with other records to paint a full picture of our tastes and habits. Information held by different retailers, insurers and government agencies can be mined to create constantly updated files more complete than the most tenacious intelligence report on a suspected criminal a generation ago.

Privacy advocates do their jobs by reminding us of these risks, but our choices all seem to be in the direction of trading away privacy. The fantastic power and convenience of digital life has led us to change what we consider private in ways that we can only begin to understand.

Indeed, our expectations of privacy have changed radically over time. Stanford law professor Lawrence Friedman in his recent book, "Guarding Life's Dark Secrets," documents the total lack of privacy expectations through the medieval period, when people lived together with no option for privacy, to a period of privacy for some people and some purposes as part of what he calls the "Victorian compromise." Propriety was defined through social norms focused on reputation, which included significant freedom for otherwise scandalous behavior if it was done carefully, in private.

"If the nineteenth century was a world of privacy and prudery, a world of closed doors and drawn blinds," Mr. Friedman writes, "then the world of the twenty-first century is the world of the one-way mirror, the world of the all-seeing eye."

We now seem happy to trust companies with our information for benefits such as one-click buying and online searches for personally relevant results. In a digital world where it is possible to know more than ever about everything, including one another, the new vice may be the flip side of privacy -- concealing information about ourselves of legitimate value to others.

In the physical world, surveillance cameras, satellites and bio-recognition systems have redefined privacy expectations. We have learned that "privacy can be very dangerous," as federal appeals judge Richard Posner has observed. "Obviously if you're a terrorist, privacy is enormously important. So the more we think of privacy as endangering us, that will reinforce these commercial incentives to surrender privacy."

Privacy remains a virtue, or at least we still say it does. But the balance has been tipped by other values, such as transparency, a free flow of information and physical security. We're in the early stages of adapting to more digital and visible lives, with privacy expectations better defined by what we do than by what we say.

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