privacy Archives — Page 3 of 4


John Podesta is no stranger to privacy issues. I can remember some interactions with him in the context of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) during the Clinton Presidency. He has now been tasked with producing a big data-privacy report in 90 days. We are undergoing a revolution in the way that information about our purchases, our conversations, our social networks, our movements, and even our physical identities are collected, stored, analyzed and used. The immense volume, diversity and potential value of data will have profound implications for privacy, the economy, and public policy.
President Obama’s first response to the revelations of NSA malfeasance was jarring to many, an unhappiness articulated by Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Now we have Obama’s considered response: Mr. Obama also said he was taking the “unprecedented step” of extending privacy safeguards to non-Americans, including requiring that data collected abroad be deleted after a certain period and limiting its use to specific security requirements, like counterterrorism and cybersecurity. “The bottom line,” he said, “is that people around the world — regardless of their nationality — should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security.” Full report.
For too long, the field of privacy has been becalmed by religious fealty to a concept propounded by two New England aristocrats who were annoyed by paparazzi taking pictures of a party in a home. The ill-considered explosion set off by the NSA in its zeal to prevent all future acts of terror has opened up space for new thinking on the subject. An op-ed in the Washington Post is a good example: This is an anonymity problem: The NSA cannot create a dossier on you from your metadata unless it knows that you made the calls the agency is looking at. The privacy question is all about data-gathering: Should the NSA have access to nationwide metadata? The right answer to that question is yes.
We think about transaction-generated data (TGD) a lot. The essence is that data generated as a by-product of some activity (and which is therefore highly accurate) can tell us more about behavior (even future behavior) than all the questionnaires in the world. Behavior associated with music, closely tied to emotion,seems like an even better candidate than reading. During the next federal election cycle, for instance, Pandora users tuning into country music acts, stand-up comedians or Christian bands might hear or see ads for Republican candidates for Congress. Others listening to hip-hop tunes, or to classical acts like the Berlin Philharmonic, might hear ads for Democrats.
Prof Hal Abelson of MIT recently shared his thoughts on privacy in the digital realm, at a online alumni webcast. Amongst the noise that one hears on this topic these days, his thoughtful comments resonated. Partly for sharing and partly for my own memory, I felt it justified a blog post and I capture his main points below: People don’t really know what they want when they think of privacy. They describe their privacy needs through use-case scenarios for e.g.
Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and I have been debating privacy since the early 1990s. We both had chapters in Technology and Privacy: The New Landscape, which remains a seminal book on technology and privacy, published in 1997. Just last month, we continued our conversation at IGF in Bali. He was not so forthright in Bali, but now he is putting into words what we have been kicking around in our internal discussions. At the just-concluded IAPP Data Protection Congress in Brussels, the audience heard a bold proposal from closing keynoter Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: “The naked truth is that informational self-determination has turned into a formality devoid of meaning and import.
This was a central claim in the highly significant ruling made by Federal District Court in Washington DC: In a 68-page ruling, Judge Leon said the N.S.A. program that systematically gathers records of Americans’ phone calls was most likely unconstitutional, rejecting the Obama administration’s argument that a 1979 case, Smith v. Maryland, was a controlling precedent.

Trust as the key ingredient

Posted on November 25, 2013  /  0 Comments

Even when one disagrees with a speaker, one can learn from the engagement. I enjoyed myself at the talk given by Futurist Gerd Leonhard at ITU Telecom World, partly because I was actively engaging his stream of consciousness by tweeting. One thing I agreed fully with was his emphasis on trust: As the tweet said: “If you are in ICT Business & don’t have trust, you will be out of business in 5 yrs. Futurist at #ituworld” This caused me to dig through some old writing. Here is what wrote back in 1999 in a UNESCO publication: The overall environment of a society has an impact on how its members approach electronic commerce.
My work on privacy in the 1990s greatly benefited from my teaching. My classes were like laboratories where we tested out scenarios and concepts. I (and my students) also engaged with science fiction. I still talk about the extraordinarily powerful, low-tech surveillance techniques described by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale. That was brought to me by a student.
I was reminded of that old chestnut about a flagman having to walk in front of early automobiles when I heard some participants talk at the workshop on big data, social good and privacy. Imagine imposing inform and consent rules on transaction-generated data (big data) belonging to large corporate entities such as mobile operators. They need the data on user mobility patterns to manage their networks; they need financial transaction data to manage their finances. All these things can be covered under broad inform and consent procedures that will be presented to customers as they sign up. What will not be possible would be to permit use by third parties for traffic management, energy management, urban planning etc, since these uses could not be conceptualized at the time of signing up customers.
President Obama’s support for surveillance predates his election. I believe that he has assessed the pros and cons of surveillance and concluded that it is necessary. The question then is how it is to be regulated, so that that negative outcomes can be minimized. One possible path is a variation of the FISA oversight solution, but with greater transparency. This may be the path being explored by Senator Markey, perhaps one of the most well informed US legislators on telecom and ICT matters.
The ethic of reciprocity is perhaps the most fundamental principle governing human interaction. I once studied this in some depth for the purpose of teaching interconnection of all things. My favorite was Rabbi Hillel’s formulation: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn it.”—Talmud, Shabbat 31a, the “Great Principle” So now, Russia wants the ethic of reciprocity applied to the metadata, the collection of which President Obama said was no problem at all.

Trust in electronic space

Posted on June 24, 2013  /  0 Comments

With the commencement of work on the privacy aspects of big data in 2013, I found myself going back to a line of research and teaching I had thought of in the past tense. In terms of citations as recorded by Scholar.Google, a privacy piece from 1997 is still occupying 2nd place. So it was not too much of a stretch to respond to a request from the organizers of the 2013 Cyber Security Summit in Colombo on 25th June 2013. The overview piece is not that dependent on slides, so the slideset is quite small.
Returning to the privacy field after a break of more than 10 years, I was struck by how inappropriate the old notice and consent approaches would be for what was actually happening on the ground. Here is an attempt to evolve new principles. Not had time to fully digest yet. Traditional approaches are no longer fit for the purposes for which they were designed, for several reasons: • They fail to account for the possibility that new and beneficial uses for the data will be discovered, long after the time of collection. • They do not account for networked data architectures that lower the cost of data collection, transfer and processing to nearly zero, and enable multiuser access to a single piece of data.
Smith v Maryland was a 1979 US case that permitted relatively easy access to phone records. Fixed phone records, because that’s all there was, back then. Mobile phone records yield a lot more information. But US law enforcement has been using the old rules to get the call records. But that may be about to change, at least in Texas.
Alan Westin’s book “Privacy and Freedom” was published in 1967. He could have rested on his many laurels. But he did not. He engaged with the privacy issues of today: In recent years, Mr. Westin turned his attention to the Niagara of personal data loosed by Google, Facebook and their ilk.