The Future Of Privacy: Look At Who's Missing From The Discussion
from the and-there's-your-answer dept
Earlier today, I attended the rather enjoyable lunchtime “salon” on Privacy 2009: The Year Ahead, put together by Tech Policy Central and held at Facebook’s headquarters. The discussion, moderated by Kara Swisher, involved Facebook’s chief privacy officer, Chris Kelly, along with Chris Hoffnagle of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology and Jim Dempsey from the Center for Democracy & Technology. Kara (as always) did a good job trying to stir up a little controversy, but, to be honest, there wasn’t all that much that the folks on the panel disagreed about. About the strongest disagreement came over the question of anonymity — with Chris Kelly admitting that anonymity is an important right, but not one that Facebook wanted people to exercise on Facebook.
But, to be honest, it was that lack of controversy that basically highlighted in absentia the real privacy problems the industry is facing. It is not, as some of the media hype would have you believe, that internet companies like Facebook and Google are the biggest threats to individual privacy these days. Both companies are pretty explicit in terms of what they do with your data, and you have tremendous freedom and control in terms of what information and data you provide to those services. The real privacy risks come from the companies in the background — the ones who people don’t directly interact with and who don’t make their policies clear. And, of course, those are the companies who don’t show up for panel discussions about privacy. It includes the ISPs, who have access to everything you do online and have been profiting off your clickstream data for years without you knowing it, and the big data mining companies, like Axciom and Choicepoint who (as Chris Hoofnagle pointed out) don’t just sell your data to marketing and advertising firms, but to the government as well.
It’s become popular in the media to make a big deal out of the threats that companies like Google and Facebook present to privacy, and even some regulators have been sniffing around that space — but that’s only because people can actually see what’s happening with those companies (and both take the issue of privacy pretty seriously — though, both could do a better job in some cases). The problem is that most people don’t even realize that the big data mining companies are doing much more with their data every day, and there’s less attention paid because it all happens behind the scenes.
Privacy is definitely an important issue, but the panel discussion itself wasn’t quite as interesting as recognizing who was conspicuously absent from the discussion.