Public concern about privacy – “a mile wide and an inch deep”?

The thing about those kids at Google is that they’re just so unbelievably pleasant – do their masks slip off and shatter on the ground as soon as they leave the building? I wonder. A and I were at the Google Offices this evening for Search me: what’s happening to privacy online a panel+discussion event about reconceptualising privacy, co-hosted by Demos. (It was a problem finding Belgrave house because the map they supplied was unsurprisingly a Google map which, being primarily for drivers, doesn’t bother naming any of the minor roads and disorientates anybody venturing a shortcut. Streetmap. Streetmap. Streetmap.)

Wine and canapes, and the run of the Google fridge, coffee maker and fruitbowl. As A observed with heavy irony, it’s very like where we work.

Peter Fleisher, Google’s Global Privacy Council

With the abundance of storage, computers don’t need to ‘forget’ – when should they? For how long should data be retained?

Currently Google log IP address, time, date, search query and cookie ID number if there is one. These data are anonymised after 18 months (anonymisation involves removing the last 8 digits from the IP address and the ID part of the cookie number – the rest is retained because it’s of value in Google market research). The 18 months is Google’s interpretation of the 2006 anti-terror Data Retention legislation which require service providers to keep data for between 6 and 24 months, to be implemented by 2009. Google thinks it is the first to announce their policy – it considers itself a leader in the area of policy in general. The stored data is subject to two types of government request – individual accounts and data mining.

Google’s privacy measures include not validating ID for email, despite the threat of German legislation which would require it. Google will not launch gmail in China because they would have to abide by similar laws if they did.

Bill Dutton – Oxford Internet Institute

Presented data collected in 2004, 5 and 7, from a randomised sample of British over-14 year-olds. As of 2007, two thirds of Britons use the Internet, rising to 98% in children of school age. Diffusion of the Internet has stopped after rapid broadband uptake in 2003-7. The primary means of access is PC in the home.

Attitudes to privacy were surveyed, beginning with a norming question about credit cards.

  • only 39% found CCTV a threat to privacy (I won’t until they perfect gait analysis – they have way too much data to deal with)
  • 70% find the Internet a threat, though
  • 84% believe that personal information about them is being stored without their knowledge – up from 66% in 2005
  • 66% believe that using computers threatens privacy – up from 49% in 2005
  • there is a decline in ID card support
  • the Internet is feared by those who don’t use it – which Bill attributed to the “Internet as experience” phenomenon whereby familiarity with the Internet promotes comfort.
  • on trust, Internet users are as confident in ISPs as they are in providers of TV news

He observes that public concern about privacy is “a mile wide and an inch deep”. That said, it is a valid concern and our protection is to keep things distributed, and open and accountable. Accountability to market forces keeps private companies transparent, he argues.

Bobby Johnson, technology reporter for The Guardian

Reviewed data protection lapses including TK Maxx’s failure to prevent the theft of details of 45 million credit card transactions, and AOL’s muck-up with searches.

Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, wrote in a recent report that we were “sleepwalking into a surveillance society”. Bobby thinks that we are in a position of ignorance rather than happily giving away data (as Google would have it). He showed a screenshot of something or other, and inadvertantly showed us the contents of his Google bar (which reminded me of the time I was helping a senior member of staff from the English department and he wanted to find some online Renaissance resource or other, and allowing him to search on my machine involved him overwriting my last search which – it being the festive season and people putting plastic down to protect their carpets from their Christmas parties – had been to find the meaning of Martin’s reference to a ‘bukaki’ fest. I don’t think any harm was done, but I was quite badly flustered at the time). Bobby doesn’t think the debate about privacy has evolved very much – it’s still about expectations and double standards, inasmuch as the idea of a privacy agreement with a service like Facebook being abrogated causes intense anger, but we are unmoved by the idea of data retention and CCTV surveillance because “everybody hates the government” anyway.

The best of the questions

  • What’s our data worth? Bill raised the prospect of each of us receiving a micropayment whenever data held about us was used.
  • We need to pressure companies to declare if e.g. they are hacked.
  • We need to resist laws like that proposed in the Netherlands which would map the location of each individual based on their Internet connection.
  • Is there a different set of rules for the most vulnerable? Bill thinks it’s positive that children are growing up with the experience of tailoring privacy, and hopes that this will make them expect and insist on managing information about them in the future
  • Peter talked about norms – if a picture of you blind drunk is posted on the Web, you might feel angry about it. But if everybody has pictures of themselves in different disordered states on the Web it becomes normal, and actually unusual or even suspicious not to have this kind of information about yourself available.
  • If you tell Tesco you’re vegan, and enough other people do too, you get something back in the form of vegan produce
  • From Peter – targetting does not have to invade. A large amount of targetting is done on the basis of geography (first and least identifying part of IP address). Search keyword is the simplest and one of the most effective ways of targetting users with adverts. Doubleclick has an opt out – opting out leaves you with random ads. Attempting to present ads as a service, Peter asks wouldn’t we prefer to see targetted ads? He also points out the economic link between the free services we use and the targetting.
  • Bill wonders whether an individual lay user can hope to understand the tapestry of services available, and points out that the most important problem is always protection the interests of minorities.
  • Bobbie said that data can be very useful if we can control what is held, how granular it is and who sees it. We need to know more than we currently know

Then as a result of the Central Line derailment I had a moderately atrocious journey home, and the cherry on the top was a runaway bus driver who couldn’t be reined in before Clayhall Avenue.

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5 thoughts on “Public concern about privacy – “a mile wide and an inch deep”?

  1. I realise I’ve been pretty grumpy about Google above, and I don’t want to Google bash. I think Google genuinely wants to ‘do no evil’. But in estimating the ethics of a for-profit company within a capitalist system we have a dilemma – we can either judge it according to norms, or we can hold it accountable FOR those norms. I think Google is at the stage now where it is creating the norms – at any rate it proudly admits that it is the first to release policy on e.g. data retention. I commend Google for refusing to release gmail in China because of China’s insistence on ID validation, and I commend it for making instances of censorship transparent (I understand these two things to be the case). I commend it for giving its employees five pieces of fruit a day, a go on a space hopper, and a bean bag to flop around on. I commend it for being polite, friendly and cooperative. And for its track record on resisting gratuitous US government subpoenae for data. Nevertheless, we (The Public) have to watch Google (and the other Web service providers) very closely if we value our privacy more than an inch.

  2. Weggis, could you clarify your question? There’s a big ‘backwards compatible’ ethos in software developers… and there’s also a difference between verbiage and layout/formatting. Anyway I ramble – could you clarify?

  3. The BBC article seems to be saying that stored/archived data is at the mercy of technological change, change which is accelerating.
    As someone who bought a Betamax VCR in the 1980s and no longer has a floppy drive or ZIP drive on my PC, it does seem to have a point. Oh and I’ve also got a load of vinyl records I can’t play anymore, some 78rpm.

    Whatever the media you can’t just pick it up and read it. You need a gizmo that recognises it – and some electricity to power it.

  4. Ah, OK. You’re right. Witness the DVD wars between BluRay and HD DVD – it’s hard to know which way to jump. That said, I feel kind of secure in the knowledge that I can, with a small £ outlay, get kit to record and clean up my vinyl at any time (or pay someone to do it), and I can still connect a floppy drive and download my files. I’m no expert in this area, but once I’ve digitised stuff and stored it on my computer or even the Web (i.e. not on separate media such as DVD, zip discs, floppies), the more I’m able to sit back and devolve responsibility for backwards compatibility to the software developers, and the easier it will be to carry out batch format conversions. This isn’t fail-safe, but I believe there is an vested interest in developers to help people take advantage of the newest formats – by adhering to technical standards to bring about platform independence (so your files are recognised by all gizmos), or by helping you to convert from one format to another with minimum hassle. Of course, you’re right about the electricity though.

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