Saturday, September 16, 2006

Which privacy is technology taking away?

I read today in an article in Reuters news called Amid privacy backlash, Web publishers turn inward, the following quote:
"If I am a corporate lawyer by day and a Level 10 Elf by night, I am not sure I want everyone to know my different identities," says David Holtzman, author of a forthcoming book "Privacy Lost: How Technology is Endangering your Privacy."
I've seen this argument made a lot of times, that technology is taking away your privacy. And there are ways that it's true, to be sure. However, almost every time I see the argument, most of the focus is on things (like misuse of "cookies", or the linking of profile information between Yahoo and eBay, etc.) which are a completely wrongheaded approach to the problem.

So by day you're a corporate lawyer, and at night you go online and enjoy complete anonymity and privacy as you are a level 10 elf. Or, more interestingly, a participant in online chat rooms about kinky sex, or a trader in illegal copies of MP3s. Or something else you want to keep separate from your daytime identity. And now some new feature of some system, like the Facebook feature to track your friend's activities, threatens to undermine that anonymity.

Ummm... who gave you that anonymity in the first place?

I'm not saying we shouldn't be sensitive to its erosion, but to go out making technology as the villain, to blame the Internet, is so foolish and wrong-headed that it amazes me that this argument is made so regularly. Before the Internet gave you the opportunity, precisely how were you able to indulge your interests in orc-killing, kinky sex, or copyright infringement without the risk of being discovered, anyway?

All in all, technology, and the Internet, have made available to their users the biggest increases in privacy in all of history, hands down. It's true that the pendulum is swinging back slightly. And when I think of all the bad things people have done with that excess of anonymity, from the mild irritant of flamewars to the crimes of cybervandalism to the practice of pedophilia on the Internet, I don't know if it's a bad thing to have the pendulum swing back just a little bit. But don't castigate the Internet as the great anonymity-thief when it's only taking back a tiny bit of the immense, unprecedented bounty of privacy it gave you in the first place.


litlfrog said...

Sorry, but I can't imagine what you're talking about here. Details of our purchases and personal interests have become routine, and we're letting it happen without a peep. Records of our financial soundness (if not transactions), and in Europe even our physical movements, can be bought for next to nothing. I'm not saying I'd give back everything the Internet has brought to solve these problems, but I think it IS a problem, and a very big one at that. Governments and corporations know far more about the average citizen than they did in the past, and I'm really not OK with that.

HawthornThistleberry said...

I didn't say there weren't concerns; in fact I specifically said there were concerns.

But there's a very specific and very wrong bit of fear-mongering, concerning the specific issue of "loss of anonymity", which I find frustrating because it's so superficial and wrong-headed. It's a matter of people forgetting the basics.

In fact, this kind of mistake is not only dumb, it even helps distract from the real issues that are out there. But that's not why I wrote the post. That's just an extra bonus. I wrote the post because I was annoyed by the wrongness of the thinking. It's just so much easier to point the blame at the fact that something has changed in the world, than to figure out what's actually going on.