Who killed privacy?

Here are the slides from my presentation at BILETA 2014: ‘Who killed privacy?’

In 1999, Scott McNealy, then CEO of Sun Microsystems, famously said:

“You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

Events and developments since 1999 have hardly improved the prospects for privacy: the growth of social networking, technological developments like smartphones, geo-location, business ideas such as behavioural tracking and, most recently, the revelations from Edward Snowden about the near universal surveillance systems of the NSA, GCHQ and others. If privacy was in trouble in 1999, the argument that it is at least close to death in 2014 is much stronger.

That brings the question: if privacy is dead, who killed it? Is it the activities of government agencies like the NSA and GCHQ, or of businesses like Google and Facebook? Further, if privacy is in fact dead, is there a route towards its resurrection?

There are three immediately obvious suspects. Us – did we kill our own privacy, largely for what can loosely be described as convenience? The authorities – and in particular the NSA and GCHQ. Did they kill privacy so as to pursue their own agenda, whether it be the ostensible agenda of security or some kind of empire-building or power grabbing? Or, was it the commercial operators on the internet – the Facebooks and Googles – that killed privacy for their own financial benefit?

As the video above shows, the conclusions that I draw are that ‘we’ are most like unwitting accomplices, the NSA and GCHQ are mostly opportunist accomplices – and that the most guilty suspects are the corporate, commercial operators on the internet.

Their role is both deeper and more significant either than is often believed or than the role of governments and government agencies on their own. They have operated in a wide range of different ways in which commercial entities to contribute to the decline of privacy:

  1. Systematic – they have undermined privacy both in technological and business model senses, developing technologies to invade privacy and business models that depend on systematic and essentially covert gathering of personal data.They have systematically lobbied to reduce the effectiveness of legal privacy protection on both sides of the Atlantic.
  2. Cooperative – they have been working with governments, sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly.
  3. Normative – they have been attempting to undermine the idea that privacy is something to value and something of importance. Mark Zuckerberg’s suggestion that ‘privacy is no longer a social norm’ is reflected not just words but actions, encouraging people to ‘share’ information of all kinds rather than consider the privacy impact.

The positions taken by business in the post-Snowden environment, in particular the more ‘pro-privacy’ stance demonstrated by businesses at least in words might be a starting point, if it means anything more than words.

If we wish to bring about the resurrection of privacy,the three roles noted above – systematic, cooperative and normative – would need to be reversed.

  1. Systematic – could businesses play a part by building more robust technology and more privacy-friendly business models?
  2. Resistant – could businesses not just be more transparent in their dealings with governments but act as a barrier and protection for their users in their dealings with governments?
  3. Normative – could businesses play a part in changing the message so that it becomes clearer that privacy is a social norm?

As well as reversing the corporate role, we need to rein in and control the authorities – and though the recent declaration that the Data Retention Directive is invalid is a very good sign, it would still probably take a miracle to rein in the authorities properly. We also need the public to become more active, more enraged and more engaged in the struggle to reassert our right to privacy. I can see some signs… but we need much more than signs!


8 thoughts on “Who killed privacy?

  1. “We also need the public to become more active, more enraged and more engaged in the struggle to reassert our right to privacy.” Having spoken to many, many on local streets about care.data, I agree there is a big push back on privacy’s progressive erosion. Surprisingly perhaps many 70+ too, who are enraged & want to be engaged, but see no way to do so. If writing to MP of limited use, what else can I suggest is available to them?

    1. Amongst other things we need to talk to other people – on things like care.data, for example, I find many people know very little about it, but when they learn, they care! The more people care, the more politicians and others are likely to take notice.

  2. I agree with your presentation at the end when it state that the public (US!) have been complacent when it comes to protecting own our privacy. However, in many ways I feel that there is no excuse as to why the public has allowed themselves to be this way. Even before the revelations by Edward Snowdon, there was the phone hacking scandal, which showed that corporations can and will hack phone calls and e-mails just to get the latest big story.

    Even when going back decades to stories like Watergate (which was before my time) phone hacking was involved. In both of these cases, did not people think that if corporations and the government can tap into phones to monitor private phone calls, what else can they tap into?

    Maybe I’m been harsh or naive, but I would have though that the public would have being more robust in protecting their privacy by now. As you say in your presentation, there are signs this is occurring. But we need to do more…much more. not just with the odd individual in highlighting these issues, by collectively in monitoring how our information is used and what information they are using.

    1. People are slow to react unless it hits them directly – witness the recent conversion of Nigel Evans to Legal Aid. We have to be very patient, and very persistent.

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