Privacy and Big Data: Post-Book Thoughts, Terence’s POV
Over the course of writing our book Mary and I have been asked many times about how it was to collaborate on this grand production of ours. The next question, of course, was whether we changed our minds about the state of privacy in the age of big data. (And the final question was were we still friends? The answer, unequivocally, is yes.) Within the book, we tried to represent all sides of the privacy debate regardless of where we stood (although we are equally sure that you might be able to discern our opinions on some of the topics). Mary has already shared her thoughts on the process and privacy in general. Now, it’s my turn!
Mary and I have been friends and co-workers for a long time. This is our second startup together. It is considered a fait accompli in startup land that a technical founder/CEO (me) and a classically trained VP of Marketing (her), will not get along – but thankfully, in our case it has been a pleasant and fruitful collaboration with both of us learning from each other. So how hard could co-authoring a book be? Pretty damn hard, it turns out. There are the mechanics of the writing process itself, meeting deadlines, matching styles, fighting over different interpretations of grammar rules – Mary is a fan of Strunk & White and I, on the other hand, think e.e. cummings is a god. Then there is the content itself. Privacy, as we mention in the book, is one of “those topics” – as controversial in its way as what my Father called the bar fight trifecta: Religion, Politics and Another Man’s Spouse. (Those three topics when combined with a couple of beers, could be guaranteed to get even the best of friends swinging bar stools at each other with abandon.)
Privacy seems to get people and governments just as riled up but with much broader consequences. For Mary and me, our virtual brawls always seemed to revolve around my adopting two seemingly incompatible positions – a fear of what the erosion of privacy by big data technology could mean and my agreement in the now known to be apocryphal quote by Mark Zuckerberg that “privacy is dead.”
In my childhood, I was a U.S. citizen living in a country with a military dictatorship (Nigeria). I still remember with pride that after my Mom and I were evacuated with the rest of the U.S. women and children in the preamble and during the famously brutal Nigerian Civil War, many of the U.S citizens that remained, including my Father, hid university students and employees caught on the wrong side of the battle lines in their attics and basements.
The war resulted in over two million dead, many from starvation. If the refugees had been found, it is almost certain that both they, and the people giving them sanctuary, would have been killed out of hand. Having seen that tragedy unfold as well as having many close friends who suffered under the surveillance state that was the USSR, has always given me pause and helped to form my approach to digital privacy.
What if something like what happened in Nigeria happened here? In 2011, in any digitized nation, finding those refugees and the brave men that hid them would be simple. Using relatively cheap hardware and readily available commercial analytics software similar to the one sold by my company, finding them would have required nothing more than mashing up several easily available data sources: social media, cell phone transmissions, student, and employee records. Once likely supporters were “found,” you could then correlate them with unusual deviances in power or water consumption or search loyalty card data for increased food or toilet paper purchases to discover their location.
Prior to writing this book, my approach to digital privacy was geared towards keeping as much information off the net as possible and, failing that, to keep it as inaccurate as possible. This struck many of my nearest and dearest as excessive and paranoid. I replied that until they had lived in a country that had been struck by war and understood how quickly things can unravel they would probably never understand. Writing the book changed my view in a couple of interesting ways.
The first is an admittedly defeatist one. I have come to believe that unless you are willing to live completely off the grid with all the inconvenience that it entails, you simply can’t reasonably expect to maintain traditional levels of privacy from your neighbors, let alone your government. It simply can’t be done in our increasingly digitized world. I am not willing to give up Google Maps, Facebook, Groupon, mobile phones, and electronic tax refunds. And whether I like them or not, Internet tracking, DRM, the mashups of public and private data, and high speed analytic software and hardware are here to stay.
The second is more hopeful. Whatever your stance on the correctness of the recent disclosure of US government secrets by WikiLeaks, it has clearly shown that even the world’s preeminent military power is not immune to the transparency-inducing effects of ubiquitous computing. Not only is individual privacy being eroded, but so is big brother’s ability to keep secrets (a friend to corrupt governments, criminals, and dictators throughout human history). Privacy erosion is a subset of secrecy erosion. My sincere hope is that the potential horrors enabled by the former will be outweighed by the horrors prevented by the light of the latter. And since I believe that the chances of our returning to our previous privacy norms is a pipe dream, we should all keep our fingers crossed that I am right.
But just in case I am not, here is one thing to remember from the book: “What happens on the Internet, Stays on the Internet.”
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