21st Century Privacy

Over the last year or so there’s been some interesting challenges to the notion of online or digital privacy. We live in such a data rich society now that it is impossible to avoid leaving a digital footprint without journeying completely off the grid and into the few remaining “wild places”. But even then your journey will be logged through traffic cameras, CCTV, credit receipts and just using your mobile phone.

In a connected world such as this, there is a propensity to build up a huge array of data about someone’s life, habits, relationships, private time. Civil liberties groups have been fighting against this accumulation, but while they attempt to fight a solution has come to pass. Expansion. The sheer amount of data is now a tool for creating privacy, not through the traditional sense, but by creating anonymity through volume.

So yes, your movements may be recorded on a huge array of CCTV cameras and it’s possible to trace someone’s actions using these recordings BUT the sheer size of the job prevents anyone just doing this. Sure police can do it, but it takes a huge amount of man power and a legal imperative to do so – usually the resolution of a committed crime.

The sheer weight of data out there acts as its own deterrent. To datamine it for something useful would take a huge amount of time, patience, illegal access and computing power. Data gathering is not the issue it once was and shouldn’t be treated as the bogeyman in the room.

I think that the big issue is not the collection of all this data, it’s the collation of data and the linking of that to fewer explicit accounts. Facebook and Google are attempting to centralize your life. By using their tools and systems you won’t need to venture out to the web – the web comes to you. And so does that data. By linking accounts together – simplifying and centralizing a network of logins, accounts and passwords – to a single persona you in effect create a single point to target. If your account can be hacked then your privacy is on the line as it opens up emails, photos and contact information. And when services such as Google+ which requires your real name to be used – the attacks become much more focused and personal.

While we moan and complain about having so many logins, passwords and PINs (such a #firstworldproblem) this actually keeps us and our data safer. Email over here, photos over here, contacts over there – everything has its own area and it’s own protection. You’re never compromising access to everything if any one item fails.

The case for hiding behind an avatar has always been an interesting one. It’s not a new thing – writers have been doing it for centuries – creating a new identity that avails them of the constraints of society. It allows you to say want you like and do what you like without it being attached to your “real life” persona. That’s liberating and exciting, but it’s also problematic in the wrong hands. Solving it by using your real name? I don’t think that works either.

I did a lot of stupid stuff when I was young. The were plenty of boozy weekends full of bad decisions and stupidity. Luckily they are recorded only in the minds of like minded boozers and out of focus photos. But today’s teenagers are not living in that same environment. They are tagged, joked, poked, jibed, associated, degraded, praised, named and shamed using social networks. Usually using their real name, real pictures, real accounts. I never had to worry about my actions coming back to haunt me or stop me from getting a job, but these guys do.

Being able to have separate personas, separate sections, separate accounts, avatars and names becomes vital. Not to remain anonymous, but to create a tangible sense of privacy, one that actually works in this connected world. Data collection, in most cases, is done for the right reason and produces an improved experience – think of single source medical records. I think it creates privacy through a proxy of volume and anonymity. But when that data is collated refined and linked back to a single account…. I have issues. Especially when you cannot add a layer of anonymity yourself through avatars and other personas. It’s a 21st century problem, and it’s going to need a 21st solution. The same old arguments and battles just aren’t going to cut it anymore.

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