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Summary:

“You have zero privacy anyway… Get over it.” – Scott McNealy , CEO of Sun in 1999 Scott McNealy, the CEO who should have been a stand-up says a lot of things. Many you can ignore, but when he said the aforementioned words, you knew he […]

“You have zero privacy anyway… Get over it.” –
Scott McNealy , CEO of Sun in 1999

Scott McNealy, the CEO who should have been a stand-up says a lot of things. Many you can ignore, but when he said the aforementioned words, you knew he was right. It was only a matter of time before what was perceived as a tempest in a teapot would become a tornado, and spill into the public consciousness. The Department of Justice’s subpoenas against Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are just that – a wake-up call, that privacy as we know it is over.

Scott, had also famously uttered that the only privacy you will have will be in your thoughts. And how prescient he was.


Search engines are like the digital sand, where we leave foot prints. Corporate email systems (as Microsoft and Bill Gates know all too well from their DoJ adventures), instant messaging systems, and even shopping carts – we are leaving a tiny bit of privacy wherever we go. Of course you could turn to paper and pen, disconnect yourself from the grid and move to a mountain cabin, but the options are all but none. In fact, we find ways to erode this privacy every little time.

Somewhere on some server, in some SAN your life is cached. We are living a cached life. And it is going to get even more cached, as we turn to always-on wireless devices. Our RSS will be cached somewhere. So will be our thoughts that appear on blogs. Our TiVo watching patterns to music listening patterns in iTunes, and other such new conveniences are part of a new cached, convenient albeit less private life.

I found it amazing that not many people thought of this when they looked at Root Markets, a start-up that garnered favorite comments from many, including Erick Schonfeld, one of my colleagues at Business 2.0. Unlike him, when I see the company, the first thought that ran across my mind: so I spy on me, so to speak, build a collection of information about myself, and then heaven forbid for some odd reason, I get subpoenaed. Oops!

Take a more everyday scenario. A messy divorce is in the works, and wife’s attorney can get hold of the laptop, and twist everything around… and build a compelling case against you. I am not trying to pick on Root Markets, but what I am wondering – shouldn’t we be spending our creative and technological energies on building something that offers a semblance of privacy. Just a little bit? Don Dodge, formerly of Napster, whose blog is a relatively new but important addition to my blog-reading list, says

We should again consider what rights and privacy we have in the new digital world. You will probably be surprised to learn you have very little privacy and very few rights. Over the years we have rationalized this away, traded privacy for convenience, accepted targeted ads for free content, and assumed our email, even at work, was private. It isn’t.

Don offers seven rules of how to safeguard your privacy in a digital world, and many of them are frankly quite easy to implement. Writing private emails during work hours? Not a good idea. More conversations, instead of sensitive emails, which after all can be cached anywhere. And so on. I am going to think long and hard about Don’s suggestions, and try and follow them.

Everything works out just fine 99.9% of the time. We live in a great society of honest and decent people who want to do the right thing. Even in government…most of the time. Principles are important. We do have a right to privacy, but we have been lulled to sleep about where the boundaries of our privacy begin and end, and what compromises we have made along the way. Something to think about over the weekend.

PS: Any good privacy tool recommendations for OS-X?

  1. Perhaps most visionary of them all was Neal Stephenson in ‘The Diamond Age’ (1995, I think) when he lets the neo-Victorian spymaster say that in this age that can track everything and everybody everywhere, all that is left is — politeness.

    As for OSX options, the easiest thing to start with is to encrypt the home folder. It’s completely invisible in daily use and the drag on performance is minimal.

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  2. Pull the plug

    Om Malik states today: Somewhere on some server, in some SAN your life is cached. We are living a cached life. And it is going to get even more cached, as we turn to always-on wireless devices. Our RSS will be cached somewhere. So will be our thoughts …

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  3. Mr. Malik -

    What kind of privacy software did you have in mind on Mac? Somthing beyond PGP I’m sure… But, you’re probably keen on something on some other platform you’d like to see on Mac… Just curious (and maybe able to help).

    Gerald

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  4. Tom Maddox and myself have been having an interesting blog argument on the subject. (Starts here.) I hadn’t ever seen the quotation from Scott before, but frankly, I have to agree with him. Privacy is only realistically possible in short spurts. And a time is likely coming when anonymity will be made so inconvenient as to be effectively impossible.

    Here’s two privacy tips for you, that, when combined, pretty much give you all the privacy that can be had without pulling a “log cabin” stunt:

    Use Tor.
    Pay with cash.

    And don’t be surprised if those two limit your options dramatically. And obviously, don’t tell anyone who you are while using those two options, as that’s kind of counter-productive.

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  5. Good article, Om.

    Have you enabled FileVault on your laptop?

    It’s built into OS X, and encrypts your entire home directory. It would absolutely prevent a wife or her lawyer from getting sensitive info off your laptop.

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  6. Dear Tom,

    thanks for the tip. I had almost had forgotten about that. good part – no wife and thus no lawyer – but still.

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  7. gerald,

    thanks for your offer to help. i am looking for some piece of software that ensures that my surfing habits are not cached on the work servers at the very least. i think that is key. and email.

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  8. Om,

    Perhaps you could document/chart the response of these companies to requests from China, and then from the DoJ.

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  9. that is a good idea. i am pretty sure that they all buckled under the chinese demands. that clearly is a double standard.

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