Recommended Posts on Power, Culture, and Privacy

Lots of talk about privacy lately. Much of it has been spurred by the completely unsurprising revelations about NSA spying. But we were primed for that by the discussion surrounding Facebook Home and Om Malik’s widely noted reaction (“Why Facebook Home Bothers Me“) back in April.

Server room in CERN (Switzerland)

Server room in CERN (Switzerland) (© Florian Hirzinger)

Over the past day, I’ve read two standout posts that I’d really recommend. At the New Yorker, Jill Lepore has an engaging piece entitled Privacy in an Age of Publicity on the history of our modern notions of privacy. She connects a number of disparate points, including the shift in our meaning of “mystery,” early ideas about publicity from Jeremy Bentham (of the oft-discussed “panopticon” ), the development of the notion of a domestic sphere of life, and the legally foundational 1890 article on privacy by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis. By the end of the article, it made a whole lot of sense why people just aren’t that bothered by the NSA’s practices. As she put it:

There is no longer a public self, even a rhetorical one. There are only lots of people protecting their privacy, while watching themselves, and one another, refracted, endlessly, through a prism of absurd design.

That’s the cultural side of things. But there’s also the power side of things. Dave Winer takes up that side (“The Quiet War In Tech“) noting:

In th[e] war [of information], the governments have more in common than they have differences. …What they want is to keep order, I really believe that. The order that keeps the rich rich, and more or less ignores the challenges we all face in keeping our species alive on this planet. I understand the sentiment. …If you were President of the United States, and you saw a certain probability of [tech collapse] happening, you’d re-up on the side of preserving order. …And in that context, it’s not surprising that our, the people’s, information access systems are really weak compared to the ones the governments have.

By now it should be obvious that the big tech companies are not our friends. They’re more like the government than they are like you and me. Maybe not their fault, maybe they didn’t see it coming, but I doubt they’d deny that they’re there now.

Winer goes on to spin out some important implications for programmers and tech users, so it is worth a read.

Great insights.

Privacy Is Only as Strong as Your Weakest Friend, David Petraeus Edition

You may be awesome at keeping the lid tight on your online data. Like, “Leader of the CIA” tight. But how about your friends?

The collapse of the impressive career of CIA Director David H. Petraeus was triggered when a woman with whom he was having an affair sent threatening e-mails to another woman close to him, according to three senior law enforcement officials with know­ledge of the episode.

The recipient of the e-mails was so frightened that she went to the FBI for protection and help tracking down the sender, according to the officials. The FBI investigation traced the threats to Paula Broadwell, a former military officer and a Petraeus biographer, and uncovered explicit e-mails between Broadwell and Petraeus, the officials said.

When you share data, you share data with everyone that your partner ever shared data with…

BTW, an email counts as “data”. Even if the accounts are anonymous (as Broadwell’s seems to have been). Service providers are being asked to give it up more and more all the time. And they frequently comply.

Via Sari Horowitz and Greg Miller at The Washington Post. For more technical info, click through Ars Technica’s coverage.

Preserving the Dignity of Death in the Digital Age

Technology develops quickly, but law evolves to meet it at a much slower rate. Megan Guess at Ars Technica reported on an important recognition of the way that the internet’s viral power may very well compromise one of our dearest legal and moral protections.

On Wednesday, Ninth Circuit judge Alex Kozinski ruled that San Diego County, Coulter’s employer, violated Brenda Marsh’s due process constitutional rights when Coulter made photocopies of 16 images in her son’s autopsy reports for himself and later gave them out to a newspaper and TV station. While many states and counties have laws forbidding the dissemination of death-scene images unless the photos are given out by family members, this ruling is the first that says it is also a constitutional right for family members to be able to protect their privacy after a loved one’s death.


Dharun Ravi, Tyler Clemente, and How We Accept Spying

Today, Dharun Ravi begins his thirty day prison sentence for his conviction on crimes relating to using a webcam twice to spy on his Rutgers roommate Tyler Clemente.  Clemente committed suicide a day later.  (For background, The New York Times has a topic page on the case.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the case over the past couple of years, especially since Ravi’s conviction in March.  And especially given what he was actually sentence for.


Offline Data Mining and You

People are (rightly) concerned about who has access to their personal information theses days. But even when you avoid social networking sites altogether, data about you is still being collected.

Every time you go shopping, you share intimate details about your consumption patterns with retailers. And many of those retailers are studying those details to figure out what you like, what you need, and which coupons are most likely to make you happy. Target, for example,…assigns every customer a Guest ID number, tied to their credit card, name, or email address that becomes a bucket that stores a history of everything they’ve bought and any demographic information Target has collected from them or bought from other sources.

That’s from Kashmir Hill over at Forbes, telling the unsettling story of how—through data mining and statistical analysis—Target ended up knowing a teen girl was pregnant before her father did. (The story originates with Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit.  His story “How Companies Learn Your Secrets” is a must read over that the NYT Magazine.)

Users Aren’t Always the Best Judges of Risk

As is the case with lots of categories of news, little in the mainstream tech journalism follows the really important stories. More often, coverage focuses on new product announcements and sensationalism. One important topic, however, does appear frequently in mainstream tech news, namely privacy. There is broad awareness that our new digital lifestyle brings with it a host of potential problems in keeping ourselves at our information secure. Poor management of privacy and information use by some of the industry’s biggest players (like Google), recent congressional debates on the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) and Facebook’s impending IPO have kept these issues in the limelight.

But, of course, there will always be people who push back against prevailing winds.  Reflecting on some Talks that he recently attended, Steve Wildstrom suggests that the over-arching angle in the effort to deal (updated) with privacy is misplaced.


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