Online privacy will still be a mess a decade from now, experts say

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The shifting sands of online privacy are not going to solidify any time soon, judging by the responses to a recent survey of technology experts, internet pioneers and prominent sociologists done by the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project. The survey asked respondents whether they thought the minefield of issues surrounding online privacy rights would be solved either by government or by society as a whole by 2025. The verdict? Not bloody likely.

The report is part of a series of studies the Pew Center has done to mark the 25th anniversary of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the worldwide web, and includes responses from hundreds of experts as well as some anonymous answers from those who didn’t want to provide their names. The main question was: “Will policy makers and technology innovators create a secure, popularly accepted, and trusted privacy-rights infrastructure by 2025?”

A little over half of the respondents said no to that question and a smaller number said yes — but even those who said yes were skeptical about how prevalent such an infrastructure would be, and how strongly individual users or citizens would adhere to it even if it did exist. As one respondent described it, “privacy is still a fluid concept,” with different users defining it in different ways — and that’s unlikely to change in the next decade. Here are some of the responses that stood out from the Pew Center’s report:

danah boyd, Microsoft research scientist: “I expect the dynamics of security and privacy are going to be a bloody mess for the next decade, mired in ugly politics and corporate greed. I also expect that our relationship with other countries is going to be a mess over these issues. People will be far more aware of the ways that data is being used and abused, although I suspect that they will have just as little power over their data as they do now.”

Big Brother is watching you

Howard Rheingold, Institute for the Future: “Citizens will join the state and digital businesses in the surveillance game. Privacy is a social construct — for example, until central heating, most people in most houses slept in the same room; in Japan, for centuries, walls were made of paper. Ask any teenager about his or her ‘Facebook-stalking’ habits. Privacy has already changed.”

Hal Varian, chief economist for Google: “By 2025, the current debate about privacy will seem quaint and old-fashioned. The benefits of cloud-based, personal, digital assistants will be so overwhelming that putting restrictions on these services will be out of the question. Of course, there will be people who choose not to use such services, but they will be a small minority. Everyone will expect to be tracked and monitored, since the advantages, in terms of convenience, safety, and services, will be so great.”

Vint Cerf, co-developer of TCP/IP: “By 2025, people will be much more aware of their own negligent behavior, eroding privacy for others, and not just themselves. The uploading and tagging of photos and videos without permission may become socially unacceptable. As in many other matters, the social punishment may have to be accompanied by legislation—think about seat belts and smoking by way of example.”

David Weinberger, Harvard’s Berkman Center: “Unfortunately, the incentives are unequal: There is a strong incentive to enable strong privacy for transactions, but much less for enabling individuals to control their own info. So, of course, I do not actually know how this will shake out. I assume we will accept that humans do stupid things, and we will forgive one another for them. When your walls are paper, that is what you have to do.”

Mark Rotenberg, Electronic Privacy Information Center: “There will be many contentious battles over the control of identity and private life. The appropriation of personal facts for commercial value — an issue that emerged with Google’s ‘shared endorsements’ and Facebook’s ‘sponsored stories’ — are a small glimpse of what lies ahead. The key will be the defaults: either individuals will control their online persona or it will be controlled by others.”

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John Savage, professor of computer science: “A secure, accepted, and trusted privacy-rights infrastructure on the Internet, at the global scale, is impossible for the foreseeable future. For too many large nations a tension exists between state security and privacy rights. They will not sacrifice the former for the latter.”

Kalev Leetaru, Yahoo fellow: “While people publicly discuss wanting more privacy, they increasingly use media in a way that gives away their privacy voluntarily—for example, broadcasting their location via phone GPS when posting to social platforms, photographing their entire lives, etc. People seem to want to be famous, documenting their lives to the most-minute detail, in ways that would have been unheard of to a past generation.”

Stowe Boyd, Gigaom Research: “We have seen the emergence of publicy as the default modality, with privacy declining. In order to ‘exist’ online, you have to publish things to be shared, and that has to be done in open, public spaces. If not, people have a lesser chance to enrich friendships, find or grow communities, learn new things, and act as economic agents online.”

Kate Crawford, research scientist: “In the next 10 years, I would expect to see the development of more encryption technologies and boutique services for people prepared to pay a premium for greater control over their data. This is the creation of privacy as a luxury good. It also has the unfortunate effect of establishing a new divide: the privacy rich and the privacy poor.”

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