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SciAm On the Future of Privacy

kdawson posted more than 6 years ago | from the you-have-none-get-over-it dept.

Privacy 18

An anonymous reader writes "Scientific American has a special issue this month on the future of privacy, asking the question: 'Can we safeguard our information in an insecure world?' The collection of articles ranges from the already-Slashdotted (Bush's wiretap laws) to a few more interesting ones (how social networking changes our idea of privacy). Most of them are worth at least a skim-through."

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Make it the default (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Brave Guy (457657) | more than 6 years ago | (#24705543)

The only way to safeguard privacy in a world where ever more intrusive collection mechanisms, mass storage and automated processing of data is possible is to have a default policy that personal data cannot be held and then work on the exceptions. We need to understand the old saying that just because we can do something it does not mean we should, to consider what ethical boundaries could or should exist, and to make people, particularly young people, more aware of the benefits of privacy, the implications of giving it up, and the fact that privacy is not a binary switch.

Such an approach will inevitably require a dramatic shift in the assumptions (and sometimes business models) that commercial and government entities operate with today, but without it, nothing else really matters. If businesses and governments are allowed to collect, store and mine personal data with little effective restriction on what data they use and how they get it, then given the inherent imbalance in resources between those organisations and any individual, it will be impossible to reconcile significant privacy with a typical modern lifestyle.

Re:Make it the default (5, Interesting)

Atrox666 (957601) | more than 6 years ago | (#24705737)

We've spent a lot of money training kids to live in little police states we call schools where unelected officials impose bad rules. Through zero tolerance we teach them it's a crime to stand up for yourself and that they have no privacy. Justice is swift and stupid. At least the schools have been able to teach this since teaching reading, math and life skills was a complete bust.
China is the model..we'll all be living like that soon..the kids are already used to living like that.

Re:Make it the default (3, Insightful)

SputnikPanic (927985) | more than 6 years ago | (#24705891)

I agree with you in principle but I will be shocked -- shocked! -- (as the Casablanca line goes) if we ever get to the point where privacy is the default.

First, most people are too clueless to care about privacy. These are the folks who walk around with the "I've got nothing to hide, so why not?" mentality, the ones who can't think at any level larger or more abstract them their own self.

And then you've got corporations that will lobby ferociously against any law that mandates by-default privacy. And unfortunately there's no way that we can get privacy by default without a law. The public is not organized enough to force corporations to change their data collection practices in any meaningful way.

Re:Make it the default (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Brave Guy (457657) | more than 6 years ago | (#24706367)

A year or two ago, I might have agreed with you in despair, but in light of the increasing number of high-profile government screw-ups [] that are now making it into mainstream media, there may yet be hope of some sanity being imposed before our governments entrench surveillance/database powers beyond any hope of effective removal. (Here in the UK, I consider that to mean before the National Identity Register is fully established, ID cards are in widespread use and similar projects like the DNA database and ANPR tracking are too big to bring back under control by deleting data that should never have been kept permanently in the first place.)

Note that several of the administrations that are primarily responsible for the current draconian state powers will be subject to elections that could remove them from power within the next year or two. If privacy and state intrusion become significant electoral issues before then, the balance reached might at least be tolerable. Again, even a year ago I would have worried that the elections would happen too soon, but at least here in the UK, the issue is actually gaining a high enough profile that it could swing a significant number of votes at the next general election (and fortunately, both of the main opposition parties in England are on the record prominently as opposing things like the ID card scheme, which means making more aggressive promises may swing votes between them).

Re:Make it the default (3, Insightful)

SputnikPanic (927985) | more than 6 years ago | (#24707001)

Just between you and me (and the other four Slashdotters that are apparently interested in this story), just how did things get to be where they are in the UK? This is a question I've been wanting to ask for a while. I mean, yeah, there is the constant "to combat terrorism" excuse, but I've been absolutely dismayed at some of the Big Brother/nanny state stories coming out of the UK in the last year or two. Not that we here in the States are that much behind (if in fact that's an accurate assessment), but some of what I've read here on Slashdot has been truly alarming. From what you've written, it sounds like the public there is finally beginning to bristle loudly enough to maybe scale back some of this government overreaching.

Re:Make it the default (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Brave Guy (457657) | more than 6 years ago | (#24708099)

I think it's just a generally authoritarian regime, with insufficient checks and balances.

It probably comes from a succession of Home Secretaries have each made the last look tame in their willingness to disregard any semblance of due process and respect for personal privacy in their quest to do whatever they felt needed doing at the time. This was carried out under weak leadership that relied on the politics of fear and more generally a culture of spin for several years under Blair, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11 and then the London bombings. Now we have Brown and his administration, who don't have a mandate but many of whom were also involved in the previous government so they can't make a break for new territory. And throughout the past decade the ruling party have held a comfortable absolute majority in Parliament, so few MPs have been willing to rock the boat and challenge any of the legislation.

Having created such a climate of fear, the Blair/Brown administration has essentially denied itself a politically credible way of saying "that was a bad call" and backing away from things like the ID cards and database state. It therefore persists in claiming that long-debunked benefits and obviously optimistic costs will come to pass, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

During the same period, there has been an increasing reliance on automated means of enforcing laws rather than using trained police officers and judicial proceedings on a case-by-case basis. An obvious example is the rise in ANPR cameras, dramatic drop in traffic police numbers, consequent reliance on summary justice and prosecuting technical offences like speeding or mobile phone use rather than actual dangerous or inconsiderate driving, and therefore the ever-necessary spin that this sort of blanket law enforcement actually makes things better. Again, this happens despite all evidence to the contrary and the easy debunking of many of the statistical arguments made by government spin doctors to support their doomed policies. Once the technological framework for enforcement of such blanket laws was in place, authoritarian scope creep was inevitable, and the old line about it being easier to ask forgiveness than permission was never more apt. Similar stories will probably be told about monitoring communications channels, the appalling rise in the use of CCTV (yet again, despite ample evidence showing that it isn't actually helping overall), and so on.

Supporting all of this wherever possible is a media driven by sales, and sadly, a good scare story is great for sales. All too few of the population have ever stopped to think deeply about the implications of our current path, and we are outnumbered by those who will believe whatever the latest tabloid editor tells them.

Pretty much the only government voices opposing these measures are a few judges who retain some common sense, but whose hands are tied by the laws passed by the government (who are not afraid of reconfiguring the judicial system itself if they can get away with it), and the Information Commissioner, who is basically a good guy as far as I can tell, but whose department is obviously hopelessly underfunded and understaffed to cope with all the data protection and freedom of information cases they are tasked with handling. As a consequence, other government departments break the freedom of information laws with impunity, and only when a high profile media outlet gets stung does anyone really make any fuss over this. I sincerely hope that this will change and pressure to increase both the power and resources of the Information Commissioner's Office will result in some improvement in the fairly near future.

Basically, it's all a loaded deck. With those at the top of government more concerned with being seen to be tough on crime and terrorism than actually doing effective things to improve the situation, and a media who love a population in fear behind them, absurdly generalised and draconian powers have been pushed through Parliament, everyone from senior police officers to local council jobsworths have been pushing for more power for themselves, and the only public servants voicing genuine opposition to this approach are hamstrung by insufficient resources and authority to mount any real opposition.

It has only been recently that some sense of perspective is being restored. The average guy in the street has started to become aware of how bad things really are in terms of databases and surveillance, yet after all this time, we're still being told scare stories and hearing about nasty cases of violent crime and the like. The media have been having more fun attacking the government over an endless supply of abuses of power and data protection failures than crying wolf over terrorist threats. Oh, and the rest of the country is falling apart, with people losing jobs, unable to pay their electricity and gas bills, unable to afford to drive to things they would normally do because of high gas prices, unable to buy or sell homes, etc. Whether or not it actually has any relation to the draconian, authoritarian policies of the Blair/Brown administration, everyone cares about this sort of stuff, and no-one is drinking the Kool-Aid about how all the extra government powers are just to help make the world a better place any more.

Re:Make it the default (4, Insightful)

kd5zex (1030436) | more than 6 years ago | (#24708045)

I would argue that once a piece of data has been recorded in one place and deleted it can not be said with any amount of certainty it does not still exist in another. Especially when you are dealing with government and other large entities.

Re:Make it the default (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Brave Guy (457657) | more than 6 years ago | (#24708263)

That's true, but the one blessing we have here is that it's pretty hard to conceal the fact that you have a database that isn't supposed to exist any more storing data on 61 million people. Such stories have a way of leaking to the press, and if the culture continues to shift again state surveillance, such stores are going to become politically very costly. In any case, it's hard to present evidence in court that you're not allowed to have, which in itself makes keeping databases pretty much a waste of time (and money) for most government departments, and protects the people against minor abuses or incidental failures, which is certainly worth doing.

Re:Make it the default (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24706769)

I remember more than once California passing laws that protect citizen rights and privacy then winning legal challenges which meant that, YES, you corporations have to follow this law.

The corporations went out and bought themselves a few US senators and congressmen. I read about it at Then, mysteriously, a new federal law would appear covering the same subject, which allows the corporations to do exactly what they were doing before and which also specifically preempts the California law.

Welcome to the Incorporated States of America. Here's your complimentary barrel.

Re:Make it the default (1)

blahplusplus (757119) | more than 6 years ago | (#24709095)

"The only way to safeguard privacy in a world where ever more intrusive collection mechanisms, mass storage and automated processing of data is possible is to have a default policy that personal data cannot be held and then work on the exceptions."

It is IMPOSSIBLE to have privacy in a world of high technology, you leave breadcrumbs everywhere, everything you interact with can be recorded, you leave heat signatures in the air or skin cells on surfaces and trash that if someone really wanted they could collect, if they were persistent enough. (i.e. just look at what the the paparazzi will do for money)

They got UAV's now that can fly over your house and see through walls if they really wanted to, they have sattelites that can see into the ground to find hidden hardened installations.

What is one going to do about the sattelites in space or people with camera phones, or webcams, glass cams, the massification of spy equipment, pointed out of their windows or on their persons? I've personally thought myself about wishing I had glasses with hidden camera on them undetectable built into the lenses so people couldn't lie to me, or lie in court if bad shit happened.

You can't even hope to stop them all. David brin, I believe was right on the money: We're going to have to get used to things being public all the time. []

Re:Make it the default (1)

fastest fascist (1086001) | more than 6 years ago | (#24709233)

My gut feeling tells me the solution will rather involve changing our expectations of privacy. In short, people will stop caring so much who knows what about their personal lives. Methods of identification will have to be changed to cope with identity thieves, but still. Privacy is becoming impossible, and it seems a lot of people won't care. Let's hope we're capable of setting aside our taboos when we are capable of seeing just how everyone breaks them.

Re:Make it the default (1)

Anonymous Brave Guy (457657) | more than 6 years ago | (#24714535)

My gut feeling tells me the solution will rather involve changing our expectations of privacy. In short, people will stop caring so much who knows what about their personal lives.

I've heard a few people say that, but personally I don't think it will work. We (the human race) have learned to value privacy for very practical reasons, and the damage caused by ignoring those possibilities won't be reduced just because we pretend it doesn't matter. Nor do I believe everyone will just learn to live with knowing things about other people all the time (and other people knowing things about them) that are best forgotten, or spoken only between friends. While I personally feel that honesty is usually the best policy, there are times when secrets, little white lies and second chances make life more pleasant for all concerned.

In short, everyone being completely open with everyone else is not a solution to the privacy problem. A few well-known authors in the field have written extensively about why this is so, and you might like to search for the commonly cited writing and research their arguments, since they make them far more powerfully and convincingly than I ever could in a Slashdot post.

Privacy is becoming impossible, and it seems a lot of people won't care.

The question that I ask is not whether they won't care, but whether the reason for that is genuine apathy or simply a lack of awareness.

There are many problems with society that people "don't care" about, and indeed governments and businesses love to publish surveys showing this when they are trying to drive through a controversial plan. However, when you explore the knowledge of the people surveyed, you often find they did not understand the issue they were asked to comment on, and crucially, when a more comprehensive and objective explanation has been given to them, they often change their minds and oppose the controversial move.

Put another way, ignorance and apathy are not the same thing. Everyone is ignorant about most things, because life is too short to become an expert on everything. This should not be mistaken for apathy, nor should a lack of protest from those unaware of an issue be interpreted as support for status quo. The solution to problems like this is often simply to raise public awareness in a calm, objective manner. Or, as the British government has been doing lately, to screw up in a way that personally affects literally half of the population. ;-)

Scott McNealy: "Get over it" (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24705767)

Actually, Mr. McNealy first made that observation during a May 5 1998 17:23 PST phone call to J. Schwartz while standing on the 16th green at Silver Creek Valley Country Club. They also discussed hiring practices at McKinsey & Co. Mr. McNealy's score for the round was 83.

"Bush's wiretap laws"? (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24706187)

Didn't realize the executive branch wrote laws, maybe I missed that part in the Constitution...?

Pretty sure you mean "Congress's wiretap laws".

Re:"Bush's wiretap laws"? (3, Interesting)

iminplaya (723125) | more than 6 years ago | (#24706545)

Didn't realize the executive branch wrote laws...

Yes... They're called Executive Orders [] . Ya learn something new every day.

"SciAm On the Future of Privacy" (1)

metamechanical (545566) | more than 6 years ago | (#24706707)

That seems a bit like "Playboy on the Future of Potato Yields".

Which is to say, superficially interesting, but devoid of details that might confuse the magazines intended readership, and perhaps two juicy quotes from experts in the field, reduced down from a 10 minute interview. Because, let's get serious, Scientific American is not exactly a cutting edge source of accurate science developments, if it ever was. Oh well, at least it's not quite as bad as Pop. Sci.... yet.

Re:"SciAm On the Future of Privacy" (2, Funny)

BobGregg (89162) | more than 6 years ago | (#24706841)

>> That seems a bit like "Playboy on the Future of Potato Yields".
>> Which is to say, superficially interesting, ...

Depends on the potatoes.

Stopped reading SciAm a long time ago... (1)

argStyopa (232550) | more than 6 years ago | (#24707747)

...when it was apparent that their editorial focus had shifted from simply science reporting to advocacy.

Someone please let me know if they've gone back? I really used to enjoy the magazine (thus my 20 year subscription).

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