Saturday, 21 June 2008

Is privacy dead? RSA discussion, 19 June 2008

Some (very selective) notes and quotes from an excellent session on "Private Lives - a thing of the past?"1 at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) on 19 June 2008, which was sponsored by Reuters Institute and Media Standards Trust, and was on information privacy and data privacy.

The format was very effective, with disciplined timekeeping by the chair (which is very important, I feel). The "witnesses" gave their views, on which a panel of "judges" questioned and commented, then there were comments and questions from the floor followed by the "judges" summarising in one minute each what their thoughts on the subject were after hearing the witnesses.

The only possible improvements would have been for the chairman to read the biographies more slowly so that the audience could hear them properly - talk about rapidfire machinegun rattle - and someone should please give the chairman an actual chair at the side and make him sit down while witnesses/judges are speaking, as he often stood in front of the panel with his back to the audience blocking their view of the speakers, so unfortunately he was more "gerroutawayman" than chairman!

Note that many of the following quotes won't be precisely verbatim or in the exact order said - this is just my attempt to convey their gist, so by all means blame my hasty note-taking if I've paraphrased inaccurately - but at least you'll be able to hear the speakers direct in the MP3 recording of the session, available in about a week or so from the RSA events pages.

The "judges"

The "witnesses"

Dominic Campbell of consultancy FutureGov, who lives his life online via Twitter etc - "*My* declarative lifestyle"

Is this the end of multiple identities: public, private, personal, political/professional? He pointed out everyone goes to work and just acts - he doesn't want to do that. He's gained work through living this way, breaking down the barriers between work and private life.

He acknowledged it was a form of micro celebrity but it's very unlikely he'll ever be a politician as a result of what he's put online!

He played to the audience the well known Facebloke spoof video about Facebook, which I've embedded below - if you've not already seen it do, it's a good laugh and makes some telling points:

"You seem to be replicating village life - and the village idiot." (Claire Fox)

Isn't putting things into the public realm where they're of no interest even to him, somehow insulting to himself? (didn't note who said that)

Tom Ilube, CEO of online identity company Garlik:

We're in a phased transition, ice to water. People don't always understand the digital trails they're leaving. Information the government publishes about people and that people publish about themselves can be searched and joined up to provide insights into their personal information that they don't expect.

He thinks there's a kind of Moore's Law for information - the amount of personal information about us doubles about every 12 months; in 5 years there'll be 10 times the info out there, joined up in ways we don't know about today.

He showed how quick and easy it is to find out about someone and their life just by typing their name into a search engine etc, using Claire Fox as an example - Google, Google Images, ZoomInfo (see my review of an early version of ZoomInfo) and other very well funded people search engines, a Times article, for her address, a genealogy site for her mother's maiden name, even a photo of her house... he can make up a utility bill with someone's name on it in 5 minutes!

He's been the victim of identity theft because of the info out there about him (luckily being in the industry he knew how to deal with it) but on the other hand through the Net he's also found a sister thousands of miles away he'd not seen for 30 years.

The ease of finding information about others can be empowering for people too, e.g. in a recent survey of about 2000 respondents:
  • 16% will search for their neighbours on Google before moving house or flat (notice I carefully don't use "Google" as a verb!)
  • 20% of parents, on their child's teacher
  • 30% of respondents, on doctors, lawyers etc they're thinking of going to

He believes in 10 years it'll be impossible to be totally private in the digital economy. There's info even about his eldest sister, who's never gone online, put out there by others.

He thinks there should be a difference between the private and the public in some ways, but in terms of the technology there isn't. You can't even enforce it through laws - the information could be obtained through a service in another country e.g. Zoominfo is a US corporation.

He'd like stronger data protection laws to help us find out what info organisations hold about us and what decisions they are making based on it. He sends out subject access requests (under the UK Data Protection Act) from time to time, and e.g. the Institute of Directors had not only the date he joined and left and his credit card details, but also a log of every single time he'd been in and out of the building over 10 years ago.

Many organisations may have no idea why they're holding certain information until someone suggests that they sell it - and then they will!

His point is, things are profoundly different now - not necessarily bad or scary, but different - and people need to engage with their own digital identity.

Dr Tanya Byron - child psychologist and author of the UK government commissioned Byron Review on children's use of the internet and videogames:

Technology is great, her daughter can visit the US Library of Congress from her bedroom, but there's a digital generation divide (or perhaps generational digital divide). Kids are web 2.0 content creators, but their parents, most people over 35, are web 1.0: email, surfing.

Kids socialise via technology. Our culture is now so risk averse we don't let kids out into the streets - the radius for children has reduced by 80% since 1977. They can't go outside so they go online.

They're tech savvy but haven't got the skills of critical evaluation to keep themselves safe, e.g. posting photos on social networking pages not understanding the consequences, that once it's out there it's out there forever. 1 in 10 children meet someone they first encountered online.

The safety of children is paramount and privacy should be constructed on that basis.

Policing is pointless: Australia tried to set up blocking at ISP level, and within 24 hours a 14 year old boy had got round it by guessing his mother's password! It's not about prying, or even warning kids about predators online (in fact cyberbullying is their biggest fear); it's about supervision and thought.

Parenting is an online not just offline task. Parents need to talk to their children, make sure that they think, that they know who they're talking to: prepare their children to understand the risks, give them the tools and critical evaluation skills to check the reliability of sources and that people are who they say they are.

Jean Seaton, Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster and the BBC's Official Historian

Mores and sensibilities change. She favours opacity because some things can't be said, particularly in front of children. There are things you'd say to your spouse you wouldn't say to anyone else, because you're testing them out, just like governments may test some things in the JS Mill's way that they would not wish to get out.

Robespierre wanted transparency of souls, and he was not exactly a nice man!

She thinks we need more negotiated wrenching back of things that are or should be secret.

We can't reverse what's been happening but it's important to work out and define what it is we still don't know, what we know more or less of. In Britain today we know less of what's happening in India than we did in the 19th century.

Parents have to let their children go. Suffering one minor beating up is a learning experience!

Other people and other cultures should be treated properly, with concerned engaged respect.

Camilla Wright, co-founder of popular celeb and music site Popbitch

Once, only carefully controlled information was let out by celebrities. Popbitch was started to show the pop world in a more human light, with trivia about their pets, "celebrity urinal" etc.

Celebrity gossip is one way of putting info out there that people can share as social currency - talk about it on the bus the next day etc.

Now there's a tsunami of information deliberately released by celebrities, it's even considered legitimate to make and market your own sex tape in order to become famous - public and private life have become confused. What's private on Monday can be public on Tuesday etc.

Yet anyone who has enough money can invoke the Human Rights Act e.g. a husband was even stopped from telling anyone about his wife's affair.

Even serious public figures want to reveal all now too - Cherie Blair, John Prescott. It's a confessional world now, perhaps it's the influence of US talk shows etc, perhaps they think it makes them seem more authentic. But it seems people only want to reveal information when they're getting paid for it!

Popbitch will consider it public domain when people choose to make their own lives public, but they steer clear of children, "unfunny" things like cancer or mental illness.

Other points

"Governments often want more information about people than a good man should want or a bad man should have." (A paraphrase of this quote about power, I believe.)

Iain Dale's 10 points from the session (I didn't get them all!):

6. If he didn't consider ID cards bad before he would now!
5. He's moving to the remote mountains of West Virginia..
1. There's no such thing as privacy.

Claire Fox:

Intellectually we've lost sight of how to defend privacy as a society. The focus seems to be on the risks, e.g. paedophiles, or calling for more regulation, which holds back journalism.

We should be able to test out ideas without everything being minutely scrutinised.

Part of being free is being able to experiment away from prying eyes, of the state or other people. If we give up privacy we give up freedom and the right to be treated as adults.

Stephen Whittle:

It's important to have the ability to develop some of your life in private. A society that does not value and protect privacy runs the risk of being one without intimacy, honesty, trust.

That's our challenge. Our own dignity requires some degree of self-restraint, our own liberty requires some degree of civic engagement. We'll lose a lot if we don't care about privacy and engagement.


1. I've linked to the Google cache of the events page only - I'll update this post to link properly to the events page ASAP, but they've inexplicably deleted it from their Forthcoming events page without adding it to their Past Events, it's currently an inaccessible password-protected page.


Matt Wardman said...

Tom Illube:
>He thinks there's a kind of Moore's Law for information - the amount of personal information about us doubles about every 12 months; in 5 years there'll be 10 times the info out there, joined up in ways we don't know about today.

Isn't Mr Illube the CEO of a web company? Does he really think that 2 to the power of 5 is 10?

Tosser :-)

adamblackie said...

In 2008 Tom Illube at was predicting the end of personal digital privacy.

In 2011 this has happened. None of us can control what others say about us and the leaks from government and commercial databases have not ceased; rather they have accelerated to the point where they no longer merit a mention in the press. Indeed Wikileaks is beginning to build an industry on the back of this phenomenon.

The best we can hope for is to be able to create and manage a positive digital personality for ourselves. Ignoring this is no longer an option.