Musings on the Loss of Privacy

I am using computers since the early 1980s and I am ‘on the Internet’ since the late 1980’s. Back then, it was clear that computers had limited character sets and hence I started to write my name in a format that computers could deal with easily. Hence I have two ’names' on the Internet and in fact a couple of additional ones that were created by software doing bad transformations and humans mixing writing styles.

In the 1990s, I believed that with the start of the 21st century, computers would have learned to deal with international character sets. I was wrong. Even today, using international character sets does not always work (although things did improve, no doubt). Interestingly, however, many computer programs have instead learned to correlate the different spellings and major web sites manage to match merge data records they find. This appears to be technically much harder than solving the underlying problem but then data is always to some degree ‘buggy’ and instead fixing all the buggy data, there is more value in learning to deal with it.

While everything sounds good (except that the matching is not perfect), there is also a certain side effect. It is getting harder to maintain an independent identity since the advancements in matching data records impede your attempts to maintain privacy when desired. In fact, with today’s technology, privacy seems to be a dying concept.

Historical Perspective

Disruptive changes in the human history that led to long-term improvements for the civil society have always been associated with certain undesirable side effects. The industrial revolution, for example, caused at the beginning chronic hunger and malnutrition in certain parts of Europe impacting significantly the life expectancy. Furthermore, it brought bad labor conditions and pushed child labor. The society eventually reacted to these undesirable effects by establishing, for example, unions to get the negative impacts of the industrial revolution under control.

Today, we are witnessing what some people call the Digital Revolution moving us into the information age where the economy is to a large extend based on information computerization. The digital revolution enables globalization and brings along effects such as the loss of privacy. From a historic perspective, one can except that it will take some time until the civil society will react to the unwanted side effects of the Digital Revolution. At the moment, however, it seems we are in an early stage since it is not clear yet what the loss of privacy means to the society in general.

Loss of Privacy

We have lost privacy. Average people have not even a slight idea about what is possible with the data collected by today’s networked computing systems. People have lost control over their data. It is impossible to know how much data previously innocent devices like TVs collect, to whom this information is reported and how that information is processed and traded. Big industries are spying on people because big money can be made by creating personalized online worlds. This goes already way beyond the placement of matching advertisements and product offers. We already see that online prices for products and services depend on who is the potential buyer. Privacy as a value appears to be old school.

Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, made a statement in 2013 that “Privacy may be an Anomaly”. While it is certainly correct that, from a historic perspective, privacy is a relatively recent human right, one has to contest that in today’s computerized world, where hardly any information is ever ‘forgotten’, a certain amount of privacy is simply necessity in order to allow human beings to evolve and to not break our social welfare systems.

Glimpse at the Future

If privacy got lost, what are the options?

  1. Pessimist view:
    Give up, we have lost privacy, privacy won’t come back…
  2. Technologist view:
    Design special systems like e.g., Tor to hide communication to gain at least some pieces of privacy back
  3. Anarchist view:
    Produce so much data that the correlation systems fail
  4. Evangelist view:
    Educate society, educate programmers, educate organizations, …
  5. Economist view:
    New business opportunities (Privacy as a Service)

I am confident that society at some point in time will react and find mechanism to regain privacy. But right now, we are witnessing an interesting part of the human history and it remains to be seen when societies will react. It is not predictable what the privacy related incident will be that is big enough to change the societies’ sensitivity to the loss of privacy. It likely must be something severe enough that negative consequences directly affect a significant portion of the society. How long will the overall process take to regain privacy? I don’t know but I would not be surprised if it takes a generation or even more.