Anonymity: the state of lacking individual characteristics, distinction or recognizability.
Privacy: the quality or state of being apart from observation, freedom from unauthorized intrusion.
Security: defending the state of a person or property against harm or theft.
The dichotomy of privacy versus social participation is at the root of many discussions recently concerning the internet, with technology often shouldering the blame for perceived faults on both sides. This issue has actually been with us for many thousands of years – it is well documented in ancient Greece (with the Stoics daring to live ‘in public’ – sharing their most private issues and actions: probably the long forerunner of Facebook…); continuing up until our current time with the social media phenomenon.
This is a pervasive and important issue that sets apart cultures, practices and personality. At the macro-cultural level we have societies such as North Korea on one side – a largely secretive country where there is little transparency; and on the other side perhaps Sweden or the Netherlands – where a more homogeneous, stable and socialistic culture is rather open.
We have all experienced the dualistic nature of the small village where ‘everyone knows everybody’s business’ as compared to the ‘big city’ where the general feeling of anonymity pervades. There are pros and cons to both sides: the village can feel smothering, yet there is often a level of support and community that is lacking in the ‘city’. A large urban center has a degree of privacy and freedom for individual expression – yet can feel cold and uncaring.
We enjoy the benefits of our recent social connectedness – Facebook, Twitter, etc. – yet at the same time fear the invasiveness of highly targeted advertising, online stalking, threats to our younger children on the web, etc. There is really nothing new about this social dilemma on the internet – it’s just a new territory for the same old conundrum. We collectively have to work out the ground rules for this new era.
Just as we have moved on from open caves and tents to houses with locked doors behind gated communities, we have moved our ‘valuables’ into encrypted files on our computers and depend on secure and reliable mechanisms for internet banking and shopping.
The challenge for all of us that seek to adapt to this ‘new world order’ is multi-faceted. We need to understand what our implicit expectations of anonymity, privacy and security are. We also need to know what we can explicitly do to actually align our reality to these expectations, should we care to do so.
Firstly, we should realize that a profound and fundamental paradigm shift has occurred with the wide-spread adoption of the internet as our ‘collective information cloud.’ Since the birth of the internet approximately 40 years ago, we have seen a gradual expansion of the connectedness and capability of this vehicle for information exchange. It is an exponential growth, both in physical reality and philosophical impact.
Arthur C. Clarke’s observation that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” has never been more true… going back thousands of years in philosophy and metaphysics we see the term “akashic records” [Sanskrit word] used to describe “the compendium of all human knowledge.” Other terminology such as “master library”, “universal supercomputer”, “the Book of Knowledge”, and so on have been used by various groups to describe this assumed interconnected fabric of the sum of human knowledge and experience.
If one was to take an iPad connected to the ‘cloud’ and time travel back even a few hundred years, this would be magic indeed. In fact, you would likely be burned as a witch… people have always resisted change, and fear what they don’t understand – weather forecasting and using a voice recognition program (Siri??) to ask and receive answers from the ‘cloud’ would have seriously freaked most observers…
Since we humans do seem to handle gradual adaption, albeit with some resistance and grumbling, we have allowed the ‘internet’ to insidiously invade our daily lives until most of us only realize how dependent we are on this when it goes away. Separation of a teenage girl from her iPhone is a near-death experience… and when Blackberry had a network outage, the business costs were in the millions of dollars.
As ubiquitous computing and persistent connectivity become the norm the world over, this interdependence on the cloud will grow even more. And this is true everywhere, not just in USA and Western Europe. Yes, it’s true that bandwidth, computational horsepower, etc. are far lower in Africa, Latin America, etc. – but – the use of connectivity, cellphones and other small computational devices has exploded everywhere. The per-capita use of cellphones is higher in Africa than in the United States…
Rose Shuman, an enterprising young woman in Santa Monica, formed Question Box, a non-profit company that uses a simple closed-circuit box with a button, mike and speaker to link rural farmers and others in Africa and India to a central office in larger towns that actually have internet access, thereby extending the ‘cloud’ to even the poorest communities with no direct online connectivity. Many other such ‘low-tech’ extensions of the cloud are popping up every day, serving to more fully interconnect a large portion of humanity.
Now that this has occurred we are faced with the same issues in the cloud that we have here on the ground: how to manage our expectations of privacy, etc.
Two of the most basic exchanges within any society are requests for information and payment for goods or services. In the ‘good old day’ information requests were either performed by reading the newspaper or asking directions at the petrol station; payments were handled by the exchange of cash.
Both of these transactions had the following qualities: a high level of anonymity, a large degree of privacy, and good security (as long as you didn’t lose your wallet).
Nowadays, every request for information on Google is sold to online advertisers who continually build a detailed dossier on your digital life – reducing your anonymity substantially; you give up a substantial amount of privacy by participation in social sites such as FaceBook; and it’s easier than ever to ‘follow the money’ with credit-card or PayPal transactions being reported to central clearing houses.
With massive ‘data mining’ techniques – such as orthogonal comparison, rule induction and neural networks – certain data warehouse firms are able to extract and match facets of data from highly disparate sources and assemble an uncannily accurate composite of any single person’s habits, likes and travels. Coupled with facial recognition algorithms, gps/WiFi tracking, the re-use of locational information submitted by users and so on, if one has the desire and access, it is possible to track a single person on a continual basis, and understand their likes for food and services, their political affiliation, their sexual, religious and other group preferences, their income, tax status, ownership of homes and vehicles, etc. etc.
The more that a person participates in social applications, and the more that they share on these apps, the less privacy they have. One of the side effects of the cloud is that it never forgets… in ‘real life’ we tend to forget most of what is told to us on a daily basis, it’s a clever information reduction technique that the human brain uses to avoid overload. It’s just not important to remember that Martha told us in passing last week that she stopped at the dry cleaner… but that fact is forever burnt into the cloud’s memory, since we paid for the transaction with our credit card, and while waiting for the shirts to be brought up from the back we were on our phone Googling something – and Google never forgets where you were or what you asked for when you asked…
These ‘digital bread crumbs’ all are assembled on a continual basis to build various profiles of you, with the hope that someone will pay for them. And they do.
So… what can a person do? And perhaps more importantly, what does a person want to do – in regards to managing their anonymity, privacy and security?
While one can take a ‘bunker mentality’ approach to reducing one’s exposure to such losses of privacy this takes considerable time, focus and energy. Obviously if one chooses to not use the internet then substantial reductions in potential loss of privacy from online techniques occur. Using cash for every transaction can avoid tracking by credit card use. Not partaking in online shopping increases your security, etc.
However, even this brute-force approach does not completely remove the threats to your privacy and security: you still have to get cash from somewhere, either an ATM or the bank – so at least those transactions are still logged. Facial recognition software and omniscient surveillance will note your presence even if you don’t use FourSquare or a cellphone with GPS.
And most of us would find this form of existence terribly inconvenient. What is reasonable then to expect from our participation in the modern world which includes the cloud? How much anonymity is rightfully ours? What level of security and privacy should be afforded every citizen without that person having to take extraordinary precautions?
The answers of course are in process. This discussion is part of that – hopefully it will motivate discussion and action that will spur onwards the process of reaching a socially acceptable equilibrium of function and personal protection. The law of unintended consequences is very, very powerful in the cloud. Ask any woman who has been stalked and perhaps injured by an ex-husband that tracked her via cellphone or some of the other techniques discussed above…
An interesting side note: at virtually every ‘battered woman’s center’ in the US now the very first thing they do is take her cellphone away and physically remove the battery. It’s the only way to turn it off totally. Sad but true.
There is not going to a single, simple solution for all of this. The ‘data collection genie’ is so far out of the bottle that it will be impossible on a practical basis to rewind this, and in many cases one would not want to. Nothing is for free, only alternatively funded. So in order to get the usefulness many of us find by using a search engine, a location-based query response for goods or services, etc. – the “cost” of that service is often borne by targeted advertising. In many cases the user is ok with that.
Perhaps the best solution set will be increased transparency on the use of the data collected. In theory, the fact that the government of Egypt maintains massive datasets on internet users and members of particular social applications is not a problem… but the use that the military police makes of that data can be rather harmful to some of their citizens…
We in the US have already seen efforts made in this direction, with privacy policies being either voluntarily adhered to, or mandated, in many sectors. Just as physical laws of behavior have been socially built and accepted for the common good, so does this need to occur in the cloud.
Rules for parking of cars make sense, with fines for parking in areas that obstruct traffic. Breaking into a bank and stealing money will incur punishment – which is almost universal anywhere in the world with a relative alignment of the degree of the penalty. Today, even blatant internet crime is highly variable in terms of punishment or penalty. With less than 20% of the 196 countries in the world having any unified set of laws for enforcement of criminal activity on the internet, this is a challenging situation.
Today, the truth is that to ensure any reliable degree of anonymity, privacy and security of one’s self in the cloud you must take proactive steps at an individual level. This requires time, awareness, knowledge and energy. Hopefully this situation will improve, with certain levels of implicit expectations coming to the norm.