In an article the other day (Is Privacy Worth Sacrificing to Save on Insurance? – Wheels Blog – NYTimes.com), we read about the possibility of personalized insurance that is made possible by little box that you plug into your car that collects information about your driving. For instance, it can see how much you are driving. The idea here is that if you don’t drive much, you should pay less insurance.
There are questions here about how insurance companies aggregate their risks, and whether it is fair to personalize policies to such an extent. But I’m not so interested in them.
More interesting is the potential invasion of privacy here, and the question as to whether the law should intervene, or whether people should be allowed to sell their privacy for cheaper car insurance. On the one hand, we are all grown ups and can make decisions for ourselves; on the other, though, we are not always aware of the implications of our decisions, especially when we hand over personal information to a third party. Just as the information held in cell phones is sometimes used by rowing couples, could the information relayed by the little box in your car serve to expose parts of your life you would rather keep to yourself?
Inside the Israeli Ministry of Justice, sits The Israeli Law, Information and Technology Authority (ILITA). It’s aim is to strengthen data protection and privacy issues in Israel. By all accounts, it appears to be doing a very good job.
On Tuesday, 23 March, 2010, it held a study day on “issues relating to the collection and processing of data in the context of internet websites”. The talks were extremely interesting, even for a non-lawyer like myself. What struck me, though, is the extent to which lawyers and legislators are struggling today with technologies that have been around for years, particularly cookies. If they still haven’t worked out how to deal with them, what chance that the law will look forward and think about how it might deal with emerging technologies in the future?
In an article in the New York Times – In Bid to Sway Sales, Cameras Track Shoppers – we learn that shops are filming us while we shop and then analyzing the tape to learn about how shoppers behave. Which parts of the store are more popular? How long do people spend looking at stuff before they buy it? This is all stuff that shop owners think will help them sell more stuff. They’re probably not wrong.
Currently, this is being done to help businesses understand their clientèle better, but, reports the NYT, “privacy advocates” are worried that with facial recognition software added to the mix, this kind of technology will allow stores to gather information on individual consumers.
This is a great example of a future threat to privacy that might emerge through the combination of CCTV cameras and facial recognition technologies, which have not yet reached maturity.
There’s a great article in the New York Times today: How Privacy Vanishes Online, a Bit at a Time – NYTimes.com.
It’s about how our privacy may be eroding in ways that we cannot really perceive. Partly, this is because of data mining techniques that enable discrete pieces of information about us to be tied together, thus exposing our identity.
No less interesting than the article are the comments at the end of it. There we can find a few arguments that reflect different views to privacy. In a nutshell, these are:
- There is no privacy any more, so let’s work out how we make transparency work for us
- If you want to preserve your privacy, don’t take any part in social internet sites, and don’t blame others if the information you put out there comes back to haunt you later on
- If you don’t take part in social internet sites, you are putting yourself at a disadvantage in comparison to people who do (you lack information)
- What’s new? Court records and so on have always been publicly available
- The internet isn’t the problem – look how much information the credit card companies have about you
The Microsoft in-house sociologist (lucky thing) was the keynote speaker at the SXSW 2010 conference, and she used her talk to argue that we haven’t all given up on privacy quite yet. This is pleasing to read. It is refreshing to come across a view other than the moral panicky one that we don’t have any privacy, the kids don’t care about their privacy, and that the end of the world is nigh. Her examples, unsurprisingly, are Google Buzz and Facebook, both have which have recently aroused the ire of users by exposing too much of their information. In both cases, user protest forced the companies to backtrack.
A recent piece on the Ars Technica website discusses how research into DNA is throwing up new challenges to privacy. The problem, of course, is that researchers want DNA to do research with, but that DNA identifies people. Should researchers share the DNA they collect with other researchers in the name of scientific openness? Does this impact on the privacy of the person whose DNA is being shared?
What is very interesting here from a sociological point of view is the way that our DNA might be coming to be seen as defining who we are. Might our DNA become the ultimate biometric identity verifier? Because our DNA can tell so much about us to others, there is no doubt that research in the field is going to require fresh thinking about what information about us is private.
A ReadWriteWeb piece on Privacy in an Age of Public Living: Google and Tor discusses Tor, which is a privacy enhancing technology (or PET) that allows people to surf anonymously.
It looks like Google is offering a degree of support to that project. There’s no doubt that for people living in oppressive regimes Tor is really important. Though it does raise the question, what if we all started using it? Who would this bother, and who would it serve? I wonder what advantages I get from not surfing anonymously that I would lose if I were to hide my IP address every time I went online. I can’t think of any, and yet I can’t see myself going to the trouble to use Tor either. I wonder why.
It looks like the people at CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Lab CUPS are doing interesting stuff on making it easier for us to maintain privacy when surfing. They start from the premise that, “While most people claim to be very concerned about their privacy, they do not consistently take actions to protect it”. To this end, they are working to develop what they call “privacy nudges”, which are short on-screen messages meant to remind users about possible privacy implications of what they are doing right now on the internet.
This kind of approach assumes that (1) it is important to protect people’s privacy, (2) but people don’t really know how to do that themselves, so (3) they need help.