What do we mean when we talk about privacy on the internet?

May 13, 2010 by
Filed under: Uncategorized 

I’m doing some research into privacy and technology. I’ve probably mentioned that already. Yesterday, as part of my research, I interviewed an man who has been involved in the internet in Israel since 1994. We had a very interesting chat over a lovely cup of coffee in a very beautiful corner of Tel Aviv (Cafe Ben Ami, if you were wondering).

Our conversation was very interesting, but then it occurred to me that we hadn’t really explicitly defined which aspects of privacy we were talking about. We were mostly talking about how people put more and more stuff online, more and more of which is publicly accessible by other people. In other words, we were talking about privacy in terms of the stuff other people know about you.

This is no doubt interesting, but I’m not sure it’s the main point at all. I think that of more interest is what machines know about you, and how this enables them to target you with certain adverts. For instance, Google’s search logs have been called a “database of intentions”. Put very simply, your past behavior (and your searches are in some ways a proxy for your behavior) might predict your future behavior. If, every Friday, you search for a nice place to go out for dinner that night, how complicated would it be to give you an advert on Friday morning for a restaurant?

This is why Elliot Schrage, vice president for public policy at Facebook, gets it completely wrong in his really quite awkward questions and answers piece in the New York Times. As far as he is concerned, there’s no problem with Facebook sharing your data with other companies because they never share your name or other personally identifiable information. (The issue of de-anonymization is one for another post, so I’ll just put that aside for now.) The point, of course, isn’t that they have my name. The concern isn’t what other people know about me (or at least, that’s not the only concern). The concern is about how knowledge of my past behavior and interests might enable a commercial entity to have too much influence over my future behavior and consumption decisions.

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