A privacy friendly future?

UPDATE: The slides for this presentation are now online here.

Later this week I shall be attending BILETA – the British and Irish Law, Education and Technology Association conference – at Liverpool Law School. In technology terms it’s a venerable institution and a long standing event: this will be the 28th annual conference. I’ve attended the last four, and talked about privacy-related subjects in all of them. Looking back at them, what surprises me is that, despite some of the doom-laden stuff that I write and talk about, I seem to be getting more rather than less optimistic.

The very fact that the subject I’m presenting on this week is ‘A Privacy-Friendly Future?’, albeit with a crucial question mark, gives a hint as to my overall view. The future of privacy on the internet is very much in the balance, in my opinion – but a few years ago I would have said that the balance was tilted hugely in one direction – against privacy – and now I’m not quite so sure.

My talk will explain why I think this is so. There are a number of key reasons to feel less than completely depressed about privacy. There have been ‘victories’ of a sort over the last few years, from the defeat of that most intrusive of behavioural advertisers, Phorm, to the (at least short term) rebuffing of the Communications Data Bill. The well-orchestrated defeats of SOPA, PIPA and ACTA even had their privacy elements. What’s more, even businesses seem to be getting the privacy bug. That old dinosaur Microsoft’s bold stance that Do Not Track should be ‘on’ by default on Internet Explorer, and Mozilla’s decision to block third party cookies by default on the latest version of Firefox are both signals. They may not work – indeed, Microsoft’s decision may be counterproductive in the short term, as advertisers choose to simply ignore the Do Not Track setting – but they are still significant. Significant in that they show that privacy has become a selling point – that doing things that are ‘privacy-friendly’ and being seen to do things that are privacy-friendly are viewed as being good for business.

Other privacy-friendly technology, is developing apace, and getting more user-friendly all the time – track-blockers like Ghostery and DoNotTrackMe, VPN and proxy services like hidemyass.com, TOR etc, privacy-friendly search engines like duckduckgo.com and startpage are simple, functional and attractive – and in their basic forms free.

Of course these are in many ways little things, and at the same time we have such privacy nightmares as Facebook’s new ‘Home’ and technology like Google Glass pushing the privacy-invasive envelope in previously unimaginable ways, and governments pushing for more and more surveillance all the time.

Will the privacy-invaders win? Or do we have a chance to create a privacy-friendly future? Ultimately, I think we still do. The bottom line of my hopeful outlook is that surveys seem to suggest that this, in the end, is what people want. One of the most recent such surveys, by Ovum, suggest ‘that 68 percent of the Internet population across 11 countries would select a “do-not-track” (DNT) feature if it was easily available‘ – and that this figure is pretty consistent around the world. In particular, the people of the US are just as keen not to be tracked as those in Europe. What’s more, the more people learn about what’s happening, the more they seem to care. And they will learn – privacy is much bigger news than it was when I first started working in this field. It’s no longer just a subject for geeks and tin-foil hat-wearers.

Ultimately, what the people want, they will get. Businesses will respond – and they’re beginning to. Governments will respond – in the UK, the way that the Communications Data Bill was given a thorough bashing will have raised a few eyebrows, and may have started a few people thinking differently. I hope so.

It’s still very much in the balance – but right now, it feels possible, where a few years ago it felt all-but impossible. I hope I’m right….

9 thoughts on “A privacy friendly future?

  1. Paul
    Interesting points although i disagree. I believe you have conflated consumer preferences with privacy. They are related but not the same. My online consumer behaviour is known and tracked irregardless of anti tracking devices.

    I can only avoid tracking by going into a store, paying cash and never filling in a warranty card. Then again if i havemy phone with me, my movements can be traced and if the store’s rfid system is working, i may be picked up on their network or if the product is tagged without me knowing it.

    Consumer preferences present the illusion of privacy in the digital era when all our interactions are mediated through someone else. As such there can be no privacy when your life is mediated through someone or something else.

    What is particularly curious is how little information you can collect from an organisation, who has human rights as well, when you transact with them. The traffic is 90% their way and only 10% yours. For example, does a corporation provide a dob, or names of people handling your transaction or data throught their company?

    We are not becoming better at privacy instead we have the marketplace illusion that we are better and that worries me. When was the last time you asked google to remove your information from their systems? So much for do not track or right to be forgotten.🙂

    • It may surprise you to know that I agree with you about most of that – and I know that most of our ‘privacy advances’ are to a great extent illusionary. I know too that the ‘transparency’ is currently almost entirely one-way – I’d actually put the percentage higher than 90%. That, however, isn’t what makes me optimistic – what makes me optimistic is the consistently growing attention, getting stronger all the time, which makes them want to put forward that illusion. And it’s not ALL illusionary – some of it is real. Microsoft’s move may be mostly for PR, for example, but Mozilla’s one has a touch of reality in it.

      The big point, though, is not that I think a privacy-friendly future is likely – but that it’s now beginning to feel possible. Just barely….

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