Thoughts on privacy
By Doc Searls
Aug 31 2013
In Here Is New York, E.B. White opens with this sentence: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” Sixty-four years have passed since White wrote that, and it still makes perfect sense to me, hunched behind a desk in a back room of a Manhattan apartment.
That’s because privacy is mostly a settled issue in the physical world, and a grace of civilized life. Clothing, for example, is a privacy technology. So are walls, doors, windows and shades.
Private spaces in public settings are well understood in every healthy and mature culture. This is why no store on Main Street would plant a tracking beacon in the pants of a visiting customer, to report back on that customer’s activities — just so the store or some third party can “deliver” a better “experience” through advertising. Yet this kind of thing is beyond normative on the Web: it is a huge business.
Worse, the institution we look toward for protection from this kind of unwelcome surveillance — our government — spies on us too, and relies on private companies for help with activities that would be a crime if the Fourth Amendment still meant what it says. (Here’s what The Onion prophetically reported about this irony more than two years ago.)
I see two reasons why privacy is now under extreme threat in the digital world — and the physical one to, as surveillance cameras bloom like flowers in public spaces, and as marketers and spooks together look toward the “Internet of Things” for ways to harvest an infinitude of personal data.
The end-to-end principle was back-burnered when client-server (akacalf-cow) got baked into e-commerce in the late ’90s. In a single slide Phil Windley summarizes what happened after that. It looks like this:
The History of E-commerce
1995: Invention of the cookie.
For a measure of how far we have drifted away from the early promise of networked life, re-read John Perry Barlow‘s “Death From Above,” published in January 1995, and his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” published one year later. The first argued against asymmetrical provisioning of the Net and the second expressed faith in the triumph of nerds over wannabe overlords.