The Privacy Agenda

My Take

C-PET’s latest Roundtable: Privacy and Emerging Technologies

Nigel M. de S. Cameron, President and CEO

Questions raised at the interface of privacy and emerging technologies go far beyond recent controversies over the way Google, Facebook and other social media giants use our information. (As the saying goes, we ain’t seen nothing yet: what about nanodust tracking? And long before that problem may come along, what about the security uses of our info?) But it’s here in our near-universal embrace of social networking and search that the most problematic questions have been raised for general discussion.

It’s problematic for many reasons – for starters, it really isn’t clear whether and how much most people are particularly concerned about privacy. Companies grasping for business models are loathe to limit their options. And because the apps can be so complicated that setting out privacy options that do indeed permit the user to control what is and is not revealed and to whom can prove terminally complex. When experts confess to confusion as to their choices (as plenty of them do), the choice mechanisms (well-intended or not) are plainly shown to be fake. Just as communication is all about your audience actually getting the message, not just your delivering it and hoping for the best; so consent must be informed and its mechanisms as easy to work through as the typical less-smart and less-techie user. That much is simple.

One reason these discussions matter so much lies precisely in the way in which social networking has got under our skin. It’s helped to integrate the internet in our lives with almost the character of a utility (interesting note: Finland just made broadband access a legal right). Our being so used to online social engagement has helped blind users to the question of what’s happening to their information. Do they care? Would they if they thought about it? It’s also providing a context in which we can road test what privacy means in a world of high digital penetration – in which, for example, Facebook alone claims nearly 10% of the species among its regular users. And more than two-thirds of Homo sapiens have mobile “telephones,” as we still call these exponentially multi-purpose handheld devices. (Another note: thinking of them as phones has helped habituate us to them and at the same time made us less aware of their revolutionary significance.) Facebook’s stewardship of our info, and our capacity to hold such companies to account and work their “privacy settings,” will prove potent shapers of the assumptions of the next generation of networking technologies.

Our panel noted that there had been progress in the efforts of these companies, though these settings remain “still barely usable.” It’s not clear, at least to the companies, how sensitive their market really is to the privacy question. The development of the Internet of Things will greatly raise the stakes as vastly more of our planet will end up interconnected. The trend to the consolidation of online identities, and the move away from pseudonymity, has taken place partly deliberately and for good reasons, but has had the effect of worsening the privacy situation as distinct areas of our online lives become conflated and accessible to others. The gap between what we think we have in the way of privacy, and what we actually have, is getting bigger.

I raised my own questions at the end. Will privacy become the most costly commodity of the 21st century? Will it take the collapse of one of the great internet brands in a privacy controversy – their equivalent of Deepwater, but without the oil reserves to mitigate the collapse of public confidence and stock price – to shift the gears of the industry and make privacy protection into its central value? Why not a TQM (total quality management) approach to privacy from top to bottom? One thing seemed clear: these issues are far from resolved, and as technology evolves and business and social patterns morph the nature of the issues will keep shifting.

We are planning more Roundtables on privacy, moving from social media into issues of biometrics and security.

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