Schneier: The Future of Privacy

Bruce Schneier has a fabulous essay on “The Future of Privacy”:

Over the past 20 years, there’s been a sea change in the battle for personal privacy.

The pervasiveness of computers has resulted in the almost constant surveillance of everyone, with profound implications for our society and our freedoms. Corporations and the police are both using this new trove of surveillance data. We as a society need to understand the technological trends and discuss their implications. If we ignore the problem and leave it to the “market,” we’ll all find that we have almost no privacy left.

Most people think of surveillance in terms of police procedure: Follow that car, watch that person, listen in on his phone conversations. This kind of surveillance still occurs. But today’s surveillance is more like the NSA’s model, recently turned against Americans: Eavesdrop on every phone call, listening for certain keywords. It’s still surveillance, but it’s wholesale surveillance.

[…] More and more, we leave a trail of electronic footprints as we go through our daily lives. We used to walk into a bookstore, browse, and buy a book with cash. Now we visit Amazon, and all of our browsing and purchases are recorded. We used to throw a quarter in a toll booth; now EZ Pass records the date and time our car passed through the booth. Data about us are collected when we make a phone call, send an e-mail message, make a purchase with our credit card, or visit a website.

[…] The common thread here is computers. Computers are involved more and more in our transactions, and data are byproducts of these transactions. As computer memory becomes cheaper, more and more of these electronic footprints are being saved. And as processing becomes cheaper, more and more of it is being cross-indexed and correlated, and then used for secondary purposes.

[…] We’re never going to stop the march of technology, but we can enact legislation to protect our privacy: comprehensive laws regulating what can be done with personal information about us, and more privacy protection from the police. Today, personal information about you is not yours; it’s owned by the collector. There are laws protecting specific pieces of personal data — videotape rental records, health care information — but nothing like the broad privacy protection laws you find in European countries. That’s really the only solution; leaving the market to sort this out will result in even more invasive wholesale surveillance.

Most of us are happy to give out personal information in exchange for specific services. What we object to is the surreptitious collection of personal information, and the secondary use of information once it’s collected: the buying and selling of our information behind our back.

In some ways, this tidal wave of data is the pollution problem of the information age. All information processes produce it. If we ignore the problem, it will stay around forever. And the only way to successfully deal with it is to pass laws regulating its generation, use and eventual disposal.

While I agree with Bruce’s assessment, his skepticism in the market to solve the problem, and his call for stronger privacy legislation, I argue that we also need value-sensitive design of information and communication technologies to ensure the value of privacy becomes integral to the conception, design, and implementation new technologies.

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