Sunday, July 19, 2015

Privacy

There are some things that I only tell my wife. There are things that I share with my family, and there are other things that I share with my closest friends. It's not that any of these things are bad, or dangerous, or in anyway harmful to society, but rather that I deliberately choose to manage how I present myself to different people.

One of pillars of a close personal relationship with someone else is that you trust each other enough with private information. If everything is already in the public, you lack the ability to build up these deeper relationships.

Thus controlling the 'scope' of the information that we share about ourselves is fundamental. I let my goofy side hang out for my friends, but at work I try to appear professional. I want to be seen as happy and confident to most people, restricting my interactions on bad days to those closest to me. Sometimes I even bite my tongue and don't say what immediately comes to mind, just because it doesn't fit. It would be awful if every little tidbit about me was constantly floating about in a digital tsunami. I don't want to be an 'open book'. Some aspects of my life are for selected people only.

Long before computers disrupted the world we used to be the masters of our own information. We could choose to tell stuff to certain people, and if we picked them correctly that information would not end up in the gossip mill. It would not go public. What was said between friends stayed between friends. If something was leaked, then it was because you trusted the wrong person.

As more and more of our interactions become digital, we started losing control of our private information. Now it is far too easy for any unknown person to alter the scope of what we are communicating. You no longer know who you are implicitly trusting anymore. That currently makes private digital communication impossible.

If we want to restore our necessary privacy in the digital age, we're going to have to set down some very specific rules about how information is properly shared. The most obvious one is that unintentional intermediaries to anyone's data should never, ever, share it. They should not alter that person's original chosen scope. They should not steal control from them.

That is, a system administrator who is not a direct party to a conversation between two other people in email should never give those emails over to a third party. Communications between a group of people is meant only for those people, and it is only one of those people that can widen the scope of the information. If someone was the intended audience, then they have the right to mess with scope, but if they were not, it should be considered morally wrong for them to 'spy' on others.

This is very simple in principle. If you log into a website and fill out the registration forms, you are having a conversation with the company that created the website. If later, you are utilizing their web site to have a private conversation with a couple of other people, that conversation no longer includes the company that runs the site. They should not alter the scope.

If you submit a post to a public forum, it's a public conversation. If you post something to a small select group, then it is not public and should not be visible to the public unless one of the members of that group explicitly make it so.

Only the people in the discussion can change the scope, no one else. If we set this as the convention, then some of our privacy issues go back to normal. We can start building the next generation of technology that enforces this behavior. We can also easily determine when something leaked was morally wrong and choose not to make it worse. To be a whistleblower, you have to be on the inside of the conversations, not just stumble across them while spying on others.

There is of course the rather ugly and remaining law enforcement issues. Previously, in order to spy on people you had to both have some evidence that they were up to no good and you had to get permission from the courts (essentially a sober third-party) before you could proceed. All of that was to prevent any collected information from being abused, and certainly history shows again and again that abuse will always be rampant.

We need to return to that as well. No organization should ever be collecting mass amounts of any type of information on people in the off chance that it might just be useful for punishing them later. That's so far off the scale of decent behaviour that I've really been surprised that more people aren't disgusted by it. A government peeping Tom, located at every house, watching everybody, is beyond creepy.

We need to regain control over the scope of our information. We need to return to a set of rules that doesn't glorify peeping Toms. We need to do this because we respect the rights of our citizens to be able to present themselves as they choose. We need to respect their choices. It's really that simple.