In January, Facebook Chief Executive, Mark Zuckerberg, declared the age of privacy to be over. A month earlier, Google Chief Eric Schmidt expressed a similar sentiment. Add Scott McNealy’s and Larry Ellison’s comments from a few years earlier, and you’ve got a whole lot of tech CEOs proclaiming the death of privacy–especially when it comes to young people.
It’s just not true. People, including the younger generation, still care about privacy. Yes, they’re far more public on the Internet than their parents: writing personal details on Facebook, posting embarrassing photos on Flickr and having intimate conversations on Twitter. But they take steps to protect their privacy and vociferously complain when they feel it violated. They’re not technically sophisticated about privacy and make mistakes all the time, but that’s mostly the fault of companies and Web sites that try to manipulate them for financial gain.
To the older generation, privacy is about secrecy. And, as the Supreme Court said, once something is no longer secret, it’s no longer private. But that’s not how privacy works, and it’s not how the younger generation thinks about it. Privacy is about control. When your health records are sold to a pharmaceutical company without your permission; when a social networking site changes your privacy settings to make what used to be visible only to your friends visible to everyone; when the NSA eavesdrops on everyone’s e-mail conversations–your loss of control over that information is the issue. We may not mind sharing our personal lives and thoughts, but we want to control how, where and with whom. A privacy failure is a control failure…
Here’s the problem: the very companies whose CEOs eulogize privacy make their money by controlling vast amounts of their users’ information. Whether through targeted advertising, cross-selling or simply convincing their users to spend more time on their site and sign up their friends, more information shared in more ways, more publicly means more profits. This means these companies are motivated to continually ratchet down the privacy of their services, while at the same time pronouncing privacy erosions as inevitable and giving users the illusion of control…
And, as long as we’re on the subject of Schneier, I also liked the article that he wrote in the wake of the recent Moscow train bombings. Here’s a clip from the New York Daily News:
People intent on preventing a Moscow-style terrorist attack against the New York subway system are proposing a range of expensive new underground security measures, some temporary and some permanent.
They should save their money – and instead invest every penny they’re considering pouring into new technologies into intelligence and old-fashioned policing.
Intensifying security at specific stations only works against terrorists who aren’t smart enough to move to another station. Cameras are useful only if all the stars align: The terrorists happen to walk into the frame, the video feeds are being watched in real time and the police can respond quickly enough to be effective. They’re much more useful after an attack, to figure out who pulled it off.
Installing biological and chemical detectors requires similarly implausible luck – plus a terrorist plot that includes the specific biological or chemical agent that is being detected.
What all these misguided reactions have in common is that they’re based on “movie-plot threats”: overly specific attack scenarios. They fill our imagination vividly, in full color with rich detail. Before long, we’re envisioning an entire story line, with or without Bruce Willis saving the day. And we’re scared…