Friday, October 22, 2010

Pressures on privacy

Footballers and Hollywood stars and celebrities of every kind generally get put on a pedestal and then knocked down. The same thing often happens with companies, too, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to be concerned about. Facebook, Twitter and Google have been media darlings, but we're beginning to see a reaction against them.

For example, this year has seen an increase in privacy concerns around web and social media technologies, particularly in Europe where German and Czech authorities have objected to Google's Street View product. As someone who regularly uses Street View and finds it invaluable, I'm not convinced that's the right battle to fight. Frankly, I don't (yet) see the problem in allowing web users to see on screen a dated view of what they could get by driving down my road.

But this week The Guardian has broken a story that concerns me more: a revival of UK Government plans to store email, text, internet and mobile phone details of everyone in Britain. According to the story, the £2bn (USD $3.1bn) plan is buried in the back pages of the strategic defence and security review published on Monday and confirmed by the Home Office.

Of course, as the article points out, many internet service providers keep all the traffic details of their subscribers' web and phone use for billing. But new legislation will also require them to collect and store for at least 12 months all third-party communications data that crosses their networks, including all traffic from sources such as GMail, Skype, Facebook and Twitter.

'The data includes all the "envelope" information such as who is contacting whom, when, where and how – but not the actual content of what was said or written. Interception of contents requires a separate warrant authorised by the home secretary.'

So, we're beginning to see twin pressures affecting our privacy: on the one hand, Facebook and Google and Twitter have business models that are driven by an insatiable thirst for data to target marketing at us. On the other hand, governments claim the threat of cyberwarfare attacks and terrorism to justify knowing more and tracking more closely.

It's claimed that the UK is now one of the most advanced surveillance societies in the world - ranked third after Russia and China. The average UK adult is now registered on over 700 databases and is caught daily on one of the 4 million CCTV cameras located on nearly every street corner in the country ... with the reporter concluding that "although he has nothing to hide, he certainly has something to fear…"

Celebrities lead the way in modelling the erosion of our expectations of privacy. But expect to see increased public concern as the reality of the commercial and state pressures becomes clear.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why the need for privacy?

Maybe it’s a generational thing: many of the young, grown up with phone cameras, Facebook and instant messaging, seem unconcerned about sharing the most intimate details with a global audience. Until they come to find that they are denied a job or a qualification because of a ‘drunken pirate’ photo.[1]

However, in business it is very often the case that information has a commercial or other sensitivity and it can be important to ensure that it is shared appropriately, especially when it travels across borders.

Unfortunately, that is hard to do. This blog post contains a summary of some of the reasons that users are becoming more concerned over privacy:

  • ‘Blackberry phones in the United Arab Emirates recently received a text from Etisalat, a major provider in the UAE, prompting for users to download and install an update to enhance performance. … the "update" downloaded was really software designed to collect received messages and send them back to a central server.’ More
  • ‘India has sent formal notices to the country's mobile operators telling them they must have equipment to monitor Blackberry services by 31 August.’ More
  • ‘China has been monitoring and censoring messages sent through the internet service Skype, researchers say.’ More
  • Google’s business model (in common with Twitter, Facebook and many others) is to sell advertising targeted to the individual based on the content of information they have stored. In discussing this, an American bank executive working in England who has his tax returns sent to his Gmail account by US-based KPMG realized that all his tax affairs from the PDFs are indexed, stored and available for retrieval.
  • ‘Personal details of thousands of Sky broadband customers have been leaked on to the internet, alongside a list of pornographic movies they are alleged to have shared online.’ The list was in an attachment filed with one of 1,000 emails leaked from a law firm’s email archive. More
  • ‘If you have a friend on Facebook who has used the iPhone app version to access the site, then it's very possible that your private phone numbers - and those of lots of your and their friends - are on the site.’ More

[1] ‘Stacy Snyder was weeks away from getting her teaching degree when she said her career was derailed by an activity common among many young teachers: posting personal photos on a MySpace page.’ 6 May 2008 retrieved 7 Oct 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Personal data could become a commodity

"The mining of personal data is here to stay; there is just too much money at stake to imagine otherwise," said Sean Murphy of the US Consumer Electronics Association, quoted in a BBC article.

They're right in highlighting an increasing concern over Internet privacy: expect to see users demanding more control over who has access to their data in the months and years to come.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Enforced silence

Think about the balance of power in the modern economy: classical economics talks about 'control of the means of production,' referring to the ownership of Land, Labour and Capital. But in the modern 'knowledge economy' competitive edge comes about through deploying ideas better than others do.

Ideas can't be 'ring-fenced' in the same way as land, labour and capital can. So employers force restrictive job contracts that claim ownership of a knowledge worker's thoughts and ideas conceived during the term of the employee's contract.

My own experience is that this approach kills creativity; and, suddenly free from such a contract, the ideas start to flow again!