With information technology, we have gone from a world that was private by default, to a world that is public by default. In a pre-digital world, our lives were primarily private by default, by the fact that most of our communications were not mediated by tools for mass communications; that our conversations were bounded by the physical location and thus it took extra resources and effort to publish publicly. Now it takes extra effort to make it private. This massive amount of data that is being generated by people can, of course, be used for beneficial outcomes or for detrimental outcomes. This social data can be used by researchers to understand society better, it can be used for beneficial security reasons, it can be used to enhance services provided. But there are growing concerns that our data is or might be used against us in a multiplicity of ways.
Today our platform societies are engaged in a dubious, questionable relationship with their platform providers. If the interests of the platform were always aligned with the interests of the user then there would be no great concern. The issue arises when the two are misaligned. Individual people give over their information willingly to online platforms in exchange for the services they provide, but few fully appreciate the negative externalities of this when taken on aggregate. The ubiquity and complexity of surveillance are very difficult for people to grasp. For example, one of the largest data brokers, Acxiom claims to have 1500 pieces of information on 200 million Americans while the Company Hundt says that it can predict people’s consumer preference from just 5 data points about them.1 Our private information is being traded all around us and ever more sophisticated technology is being used to predict and alter our behavior without our even knowing it. As we become more digitized we start to leave an endless trail of data dust behind us that is hoovered up by companies and used to predict and alter our next step. With the next generation of technologies – Internet of Things, advances in big data storage, advanced analytics and smart systems – this data economy will greatly expand and so too will the predictive capabilities of organizations, creating a significant imbalance of power.
Significance of Privacy
The first question though is why should we care about privacy? Social systems always engender a complex dynamic between the group and individual, between the public and private. Functioning social systems require a diversity of individuals, that are able to come together, connect, find commonality and coordinate. Both differentiation of individual and commonality of the whole are required. Individuality and diversity require subjectivity that is inherently private, it has to be developed autonomously. This requires individual space and privacy to develop ways of being that others may not like or may not be aligned with the group. Social dynamics emerge out of the interaction between the private and the public, it is an inherent part of how social systems evolve through individuals developing new solutions in private to overthrow the commonly accepted norms; this is how we got rid of slavery and achieved women’s rights.
When these movements were started the society of the time would have rejected them if they had not had the private space to be incubated. Without that privacy there would be no incubation of new solutions, limited diversity and societies would become stagnant. The same is true for gay marriage and marijuana that are currently in the process of being legalized around the world, we would never have got there in a world of perfect information and complete surveillance. Frank Rieger of the Chaos Computer Club states it clearly when he says2 “if you have your privacy guaranteed, technically or politically, then you can come up with political dissent, ways to change the world. When you don’t have privacy, when all the things you do are completely transparent, knowable and predictable then you cease at that point.”
People need places where they can be free from the judgment of others in order to develop underdeveloped subjective dimensions to themselves, to develop into new people. That is not to say they will not abuse that privacy and use it for other less worthy ends – they often do – but it is a reason why privacy cannot simply be done away with by hyperconnectivity. Privacy is a space where creativity, exploration, and dissent can thrive. When we do away with privacy we limit those valuable resources required to sustain a society. A measure of how good a society is not how well it treats is favored, compliant and obedient citizens but how well it treats its dissidents and rebels. Mass surveillance dampens our freedom in all sorts of systemic ways that are largely unnoticed, it removes many behavior choices without us knowing that they have been excluded from our options.
There is plenty of research to corroborate the fact that when people are in a public setting where their behavior is being observed, or they know that they might be watched in some way by others, the behavior they undertake is greatly more conformist and compliant.3 Human shame is a very powerful motivator shaping behavior towards conformity. When people are being watched, people make decisions that are not necessarily of their own innate agency and are, in fact, the expression more of the will of others and their society’s orthodox – surveillance creates a conceptual set of constraints and conformity.
The idea that government regulation is somehow going to solve the privacy equation is somewhat naive. It is important to appreciate that the power of the technological process of change that is underway far outstrips our existing institutional capacity to deal with it. Professor José van Dijck of Amsterdam University notes this well when she says4 “what’s at stake here is not one platform or one thing, it’s the credibility of the system in which commercial and state public interests are becoming increasingly intertwined and very hard to discern… the core of the problem, of the paradox, is that public values are no longer rooted in public institutions… deinstitutionalization, deregulation, globalization have really caused the erosion of what public value is all about… I think and I regret that public institutions are alarmingly unprepared for the questions raised by this global information influx.”
If you are serious about finding solutions to such issues as privacy then you really need to work with the technologies not against them. There is clearly a shift that needs to take place in data ownership and privacy for the platform economy to arrive at a more sustainable model. The current model where data becomes public, the property of private organizations, and stored in centralized data centers by default, needs to change to one where it first becomes the property of the individual and is public to the extent that it needs to be public, thus reducing risk and negative externalities. The blockchain can, and probably will play a central role in this. The next round of internet applications built on the blockchain and Ethereum can enable the creation of distributed social platforms without centralized management, where data is secure and owned by the user with it then being up to them as to when and how they share that data. The blockchain actually gives us the technological means to build platforms that would take us to a more sustainable data future.5
The algorithmic regulation in the form that is currently emerging in contemporary modern democracies seems to be providing a one-way mirror that allows institutions to look down to surveil those below, but those below have no real prospect of peering into let alone understanding and challenging these algorithmic black boxes that regulate their lives, but it doesn’t have to be like this. As Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine says6 “Our central choice now is whether this surveillance is a secret, one-way panopticon – or a mutual, transparent kind of ‘coveillance’ that involves watching the watchers.” Through open source software and blockchain technology we can shift this balance of power from centralized institutions to individuals, to build systems that put data in the hands of people and make it secure and only accessible under their consent, we can build systems that have a two-way transparency and accountability.
1. YouTube. (2018). #AoIR2016: Opening Keynote “The Platform Society” by José van Dijck. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ypiiSQTNqo [Accessed 10 Feb. 2018].
2. YouTube. (2018). A Frank Conversation on Privacy (Frank Rieger & Jeff Jarvis) | DLD14. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ke3qf5kqRpo [Accessed 10 Feb. 2018].
3. McLeod, S. (2018). What is Conformity? | Simply Psychology. [online] Simplypsychology.org. Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/conformity.html [Accessed 10 Feb. 2018].
4. YouTube. (2018). A Frank Conversation on Privacy (Frank Rieger & Jeff Jarvis) | DLD14. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ke3qf5kqRpo [Accessed 10 Feb. 2018].
5. Enigma.co. (2018). [online] Available at: https://www.enigma.co/ZNP15.pdf [Accessed 10 Feb. 2018].
6. Kelly, K., Kelly, K., Marchand, R., DiCarlo, J., Parakilas, S., Weinberger, D., O'Brien, S. and Kwet, M. (2018). Why You Should Embrace Surveillance, Not Fight It. [online] WIRED. Available at: https://www.wired.com/2014/03/going-tracked-heres-way-embrace-surveillance/ [Accessed 10 Feb. 2018].