A couple of weeks ago, I posted an op-ed by Don Tapscott discussing the right of privacy in the digital age, when technology has made it easy to broadly share data. He argued that everyone should have “a personal privacy strategy.” That was part one of a three-part series. In part two, Tapscott asks “Can we retain privacy in the era of Big Data?”
Privacy is nothing if not the freedom to be let alone, to experiment and to make mistakes, to forget and to start anew, to act according to conscience, and to be free from the oppressive scrutiny and opinions of others.
It may seem an odd notion today, but in its infancy the Internet was a favorite refuge for many seeking privacy. A famous New Yorkercartoon published almost 20 years ago featured two dogs sitting in front of a computer, with one saying to the other: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
Today such anonymity is essentially non-existent. Practical obscurity – the basis for privacy norms throughout history – is fast disappearing. Our society is collectively creating, storing and communicating information at nearly exponential rates of growth. Most of this data is personally identifiable, and third parties control much of it. This personal data will be archived online forever and be instantly searchable, and few appreciate how many ways this data might be used to harm us.
Yes, likely someday there will be norms, laws and practices governing the responsible use of all this data. But practically, these do not exist today. […]
When this data is assembled into profiles, matched with other information and used to make (automated) judgments about (and decisions affecting) individuals – such as in hiring them or admitting entry, calculating benefits or terms of an offer, or corroborating a claim – then the effects of privacy loss include discrimination, especially if the data is inaccurate. […]
Privacy is also important to building strong relationships. […] However, true intimacy involves the symmetrical sharing of very personal information. We share secrets with close friends, loved ones and those we might come to love.
So what happens when we begin sharing our secrets with everyone?
In part three, Tapscott discusses “How to resist Big Brother 2.0.”
As the Net becomes the basis for commerce, work, entertainment, healthcare, learning and much human discourse, each of us is leaving a trail of digital crumbs as we spend a growing portion of our day touching networks. The books, music and stocks you buy online, your pharmacy purchases, groceries scanned at the supermarket or bought online, your child’s research for a school project, the card reader at the parking lot, your car’s conversations with a database via satellite, the online publications you read, the shirt you purchase in a department store with your store card, the prescription drugs you buy – and the hundreds of other network transactions in a typical day – point to the problem.
Computers can inexpensively link and cross-reference such databases to slice, dice and recompile information about individuals in hundreds of different ways. This makes these databases enormously attractive for government and corporations that are keen to know our whereabouts and activities.
George Orwell’s iconic text Nineteen Eighty-Four described the dystopian society where a totalitarian state rules in its own interests and everyone is under constant surveillance by authorities. […]
Sure, you could argue that it’s becoming difficult to restrict the information that governments can collect, and yes of course we need to be vigilant about how that information should be used. But we still need to resist attempts of governments to collect unnecessary information. We still need to fight for the basic privacy principle of “data minimization” – of limiting the information collected to clearly definable and socially helpful purposes. […]
To me, it’s not so likely that the future will resemble Orwell’s 1984, or Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison, or an East Bloc police state during the Cold War. Those are dystopic models from another era that depended upon a single, all-knowing malevolent power seeking control. The appropriate metaphor for the growing loss of privacy today is found in Frank Kafka‘s The Trial: The central character awaits trial and judgment by an inscrutable bureaucracy for a crime that he is not told about, using evidence that is never revealed to him, in a process that is equally random and inscrutable. In like manner, we, too, will be judged and sentenced in absentia by unknown public and private bureaucracies having access to our personal data. We will be the targets of social engineering, decisions, and discrimination, and we will never really know what or why.