Zero Privacy

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, July 2008

It is almost a decade ago now that Scott McNealy famously admonished reporters about privacy.  “You have zero privacy anyway,” he said.  “Get over it.”

Maybe McNealy wishes he hadn’t said that, or at least that people like me wouldn’t keep bringing it up.  When you’re famous, reporters tend to write down random things that you say, and sometimes they don’t come out quite right – particularly when you’re the head of a big computer company talking about privacy.

Of course, McNealy had a point, and if there was little privacy at the end of 1998, there is even less today.  Technology has only one direction – more power and capability – no matter what concerns are impacted along the way.  It is up to society to adapt to the inevitable changes that are wrought.  The problem is usually that society runs on a different clock than technology.

In the last decade camera phones have proliferated, GPS has become ubiquitous, sensor networks have become a popular research topic, the skies are filling with drones with all-seeing eyes, RFID tags are being attached to our cars and purchased products, researchers are developing microbots with embedded cameras and sensors, and techniques for personal identification are receiving a great deal of attention.

Not only is there greatly increased ability to collect information, but the processing and fusion of this information has become much more powerful.  Memory is much cheaper now than a decade ago, and by Moore’s Law processing capability would have increased by about a factor of 64.  On the software and algorithm front, there has been much work on data mining and social network analysis.

Information leakage from one domain to another exacerbates the problem.  Every time I’m reminded by some on-line merchant that “other people who bought what you bought also bought such and such” I’m thinking that they are making inferences about me based upon my apparent membership in this particular class of people.  This is, of course, a simple example, but there is great power in the analysis of networks of apparent or induced connections. 

So there is obviously a lot more technology that affects privacy now than there was a decade ago.  Moreover, there have been social trends based upon technology that impact how we view and value privacy, such as the meteoric rise of Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube.

It would seem that none of these technological developments leads inherently to increased privacy.  Furthermore, technological attempts at the protection of privacy have been less successful.  While encryption techniques have been a celebrated theoretical achievement, they have not proven to be a social panacea.  Digital rights management technology is a model that could be applied in the privacy domain, but in its use thus far it has not achieved wide market acceptance.

The argument about privacy seems to have two polarized extremes with a vast indifferent middle ground.  Almost all of my engineering friends appear to be in that middle ground, saying that they would gladly give all of their private information to the government in return for expedited clearance at the airport security lines.  This seems to put a fair value on privacy, at least with respect to the government.  Many people would trade with the government – their privacy for ten minutes less hassle at the airport.  Their attitude seems to be that since their privacy isn’t worth anything, this is ten free minutes of their life every time they fly, which for this group is often.

At one extreme there is a group of pioneers or exhibitionists (take your choice) who flout their state of virtual zero privacy, putting their entire life on the net for all to see.  A small group of self-styled “cyborgs” views the world continuously through head-mounted, networked cameras.  A larger group of individuals installs webcams that broadcast their everyday life at home, while still others put all of their “life bits” on their web sites.  I sometimes wonder who watches all of this stuff, but, incredibly, there seems to be quite a number of voyeurs who would rather watch someone else’s life than live their own.

At the other extreme is a group of passionate civil libertarians who view the rise of “big brother” capabilities as a dire threat to humanity.  The government should not be allowed to collect or process information.  There should be laws against this.  In their defense it should be said that historical examples of government abuses are not encouraging.

So there is quite a dilemma.  Is the privacy genie out of the bottle?  What is it that we should do about it?  Alas, no one seems to have the answer.

Maybe McNealy was on to something after all.

Robert Lucky