Privacy, What’s That?

11 Comments

Mike is raising some serious and legitimate concerns about the recently released Google Desktop 3.0 and how slowly it erodes end-users privacy. Here is the old privacy policy, and here is the new one. Mike singles out a new Google Desktop 3.0 feature called “Search Across Computers” that stores file content on Google servers. Given Google’s ongoing tussles with the DoJ, it makes you wonder about the wisdom of downloading and installing desktop software. (I for one, an quite grateful that I use a Mac. Just to make sure, I am not going to be downloading the software on the new X41.)

You can’t simply lay the head of privacy at Google’s feet alone and turn them into devil’s incarnate. The telecom industry is under the gun as well. A dear friend reader emailed earlier today, expressing his concern about how none of the online offerings, can guarantee end-user privacy. His lament was across the board and included everyone from Microsoft, Apple, and AOL to Google. (My thoughts on our so called cached life can be found here!)

The current situation with “online offerings” is not that different from other consumer interfacing sectors such as financial, banking and health care sectors. Those sectors were eventually regulated due to privacy concerns and personal data disclosure violations, mostly because of pressure from politicians and consumer rights groups. Should consumer groups step-up and take the mantle of protecting a semblance of privacy? How does one reconcile the desire for digital progress with almost victorian values about privacy? Please weigh in more intelligently on this topic.

11 Comments

Dan

I originally posted this in the wrong place…
sorry for the doubling up, then:

To those of us between the ages of 20 and 50, we can look back and say we grew up in a golden age of privacy. My grandparents came from a small village in Eastern Europe; they – and their ancestors going back thousands of years – had no expectation of privacy, ever: they knew that everyone else in the world (and I mean their world – my grandfather never traveled more than 10 miles from his home until he immigrated to the US in 1919) knew everything about them.

What’s happening now is the true global equivalent of a village – not a place where we’re not only all brought together by the media, but where, again, we’re back to the model that has existed in humanity since the dawn of civilization.

Many comments imply that privacy is an anti-social izing concept – ranging from “if you’ve got nothing to hide, don’t worry” to “you can opt out if you want” to “it’s worth the benefit.” These comments have analogs to the old village system: those with something to hide were often brutally persecuted; those who chose to opt out were forced to live in deeply primitive conditions (I’m reminded of the blind hermit in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”), and those who believe the trade is worthwhile are the ones who populate the village (while those who run it are the ones who best aggregate the information others are transmitting.)

And it may be, in fact, that privacy doesn’t entirely benefit society – because a right to do what we want in our homes or to keep our personal tastes to ourselves is also the right for government officials to conduct clandestine surveillance or run secret prisons (not because such things are ethical, moral, or legal; because – I’d argue – that the issues of personal, social, and political transparancy are complex.)

I’m not advocating the destruction of our privacy rights; in fact, I mourn the loss of what appears to be a blip in the history of individual/group interactions. If the “blip” had somehow continued, it might have, in fact, flowered into true societal transparancy. But, cynical as it sounds, it hasn’t (and does anyone find it ironic that the same people who helped usher in the era of individuality – the children of the 1960s – are the ones who, as the baby boomers, are now selling it out from under themselves and their children?)

It is a rather bleak outlook, I know, but if you want to feel even worse, re-read the above and the other comments here, and substitute the word “literacy” for privacy. The idea that everyone has a right to read is just as alien in the vastness of human history, and it may be that text – which, after all, is only a symbolic way of communicating ideas and information (but a supremely flexible and versatile one) may also be on the way to becoming archaic – just think about how many different non-textual interactions you have today versus a decade ago.

len

Mark is right. The desktop has to be the starting point for opt-in/opt-out policy with regards to information collected. That won’t stop the data collectors from trying, so the law has to reflect the policy in the software. On one side we believe COPA is bad and threatens the soul of the Internet. On the other, we see the predations and complain. Individual responsibility is the answer but that requires education and education too often conflicts with with reputation building and market capitalization by the VCs and hedge funds who want fast ROI.

Many years ago when the Web As Juggernaut and Irresistable Community of Good was being sold, it was noted by the Internet pioneers that its architecture offered no protection from precisely what is happening now. No one cared as another has answered here because the deal (free free free!!) was irresistable. The costs are being levied for ‘frictionlessness’ and they are a lot higher than anyone wanted to admit. Information might want to be free but so do people and there is an inherent conflict there between providers and consumers: cost.

We don’t learn. We suffer the results of trying to get something for nothing. Now we finally have to pay and we aren’t happy about that.

How did the song go? “Blow up your TV. Throw away your paper. Move to the country…” except today, there is nowhere left to go and even if you can, you discover as the cliff dwellers did in the Mediterranean and the American Southwest, when the pirates and the cannibals come you are as safe as you are armed and willing to use force. It will be better to use the law but the attention you have to pay to this issue is well beyond what most citizens will pay when compared to the ease of following the pulpit or the pundit and trusting the elected officials.

Sad but so.

Gonzodoggy

Privacy is only as good as you make it. If you rely on someone else to (i.e. a third party vendor, health care provider, etc) keep your personal information secure, you can bet some of it is going to go public.

Just for review, there is no right to privacy. Look in the Constitution. If you live in the U.S., you have no right to privacy. You do have the right against unreasonable search and seizure, but that’s not a right to privacy.

Basically, your personal information is, and will continue to be, only as personal as you can jealously keep it. If you use a telephone, expect that Eschelon will (at some point) data mine the call.

Your computer on the internet is just like your house. If you want some expectation of privacy, keep the curtains drawn. If you leave the windows open, then don’t be surprised when the neighbors watch you in the shower. Treat the information you expose to the ‘net the same way.

John

I don’t see what’s the big fuss here:

a) This is an opt-in feature, so its not enabled by default

b) This is no different from other free services like xdrive etc. If the user wants to do backup of his/her personal data, then they should understand that it poses the same risks as with any other online service.

For most users though this would be a very convenient service – at least you can periodically configure google desktop to take those precious digital photos and store them online that you can then access later.

Jesse Kopelman

Devil’s choice or fair exchange? Privacy may very well be overrated. To me the concern is not whether people know stuff about me, but whether they are entititled to do anything with that knowledge.

Bob

I liked Paul Saffo’s comments on privacy:

Americans may seem to be privacy-hawks, but they are also lazy and suckers for anything that sounds like a deal. Given a devil’s choice between privacy and convenience, the vast majority of consumers will choose the latter.

Srijith

Om, you rightly said “You can’t simply lay the head of privacy at Google’s feet alone and turn them into devil’s incarnate”.

Frankly you can remove Google and substitute it with most “Web 2.0” company. The user needs to make an informed decision as to what kind of tradeoff he is prepared for. I for one do not and will no use Google Desktop nor will I use any of those ajaxified privacy killers whose product idea solely relies on keeping your personal date on their servers – be it your to-do list, your bookmarks, your appointments, your groceries, your project details, your address book etc.

Mark Pesce

The problem is basic, and the solution is simple: we’ve come to expect that the web services hold and collect all this data that we generate as we surf the web. But why? The browser, on your own, personal machine (be it mobile, or laptop or desktop, or whaddeva) is the appropriate place for that information to be stored, kept and managed. That’s Apple’s approach viz. Spotlight, but there isn’t a browser in existence which keeps anything like the data shadow that Google already has on each of us. Until someone engineers a plugin for Firefox (or, god forbid, IE) which allows you to seamlessly manage your own private information about where you’ve been and what you’ve done, these data banks are only going to get bigger, and the problem is only going to get worse. And it’s all because we’ve reversed the focus: the focus is on us, not on the service.

Comments are closed.