Demos Archives: Fifteen Minutes of Privacy

Is timeline destroying our privacy? Surely not, but the age of fixed privacy is gone. Even if the current debate circles around Facebook’s timeline technology’s only part of the story. Demos Helsinki tracks down the roots of our transparent life’s in a previously unpublished article on privacy “Fifteen Minutes of Privacy” [2007].

This year [2007] of the privacy has risen up again. From a totally new angle. The age of sharing and connectivity has been shadowed with fears of loosing control of ones personal data, and in the long run ones personal life. It is only the beginning for a massive change where tools and policies of privacy need to be upgraded. This Article will focus on the resulting tension, between empowerment through information and control by information, that sits at the heart of the move towards a personalised, tailored services agenda.

When this goes to print the Facebook-group: “Facebook: Stop invading my privacy!” has 74,854 members. All of who have decided to that it is worthwhile to give personal information to Facebook in order to protect it. The group is an embodyment of a radically new era for the realm of privacy. Demos Helsinki calls it the era of voice.

Everyday we give out pieces of information about ourselves. Some of this happens consciously, but mostly it happens without us even noticing. The case of a pressure group in against Facebook is a good example of this exchange. Every time we join a group in Facebook (or any other digital community) we give out information about ourselves. This information has become incredibly valuable. By joining “Facebook: Stop invading my privacy!” -group. We contribute to a company that’s greatest assets are our very contribution, a company that is traded in hundreds of millions.


How personal can you get?

The whole history of ICT can be seen as a linear drive towards more and more personal. The journey from personal computers and phones to networked, mobile, allways-on, customisable and context sensitive personal communication-, data capture- and sharing-tools has been evident and incredibly fast. It appeared for a very long time to be exatly what people wanted. Now the promise of shift from mass-produced services to “real personalisation” by involving the user communities in the production has became the prime mechanism that pushes us towards greater and wider expression of our personal voice – and thus forces us to daily trade-offs with our privacy. We have become day traders in the burgeoning economy of personal data. It seems that this journey to the personal has reached its tipping point. When we all have tools in our pockets to potentially attract same level of viewing figures that used to be reserved for national broadcasters, its hardly a surprise that this the personalisation can not go on the traditional linear fashion. Our hypothesis is that connecting people is simply not enough anymore. Sometimes we ought to also disconnect people, provide them with new tools and policies for the new era of privacy.

This is not to say we the threats outshadowed the potential. Problems of data protection, privacy, technology and identity are inseparable from the benefits we enjoy from the open information society we live in. There is a hazy distinction between the lifestyle and social benefits that can result from sharing our personal information, and the way information can change how organisations and institutions find out and make decisions about us. Personal information creates a political challenge because it is the basis on which decisions about interventions from institutions are made.


Private and public in one box

Every successful player in the ICT-sector has gone personal. Google, for example, has successfully personalised its service, adding relevance searches by moulding search results around users search-history and apparent preferences. The search giant now plans to use individual medical records to further personalise its response in the future. This is about inserting context and meaning back into words and associations of words, with the inevitable consequence that they become more valuable for some people than others.

The Wall Street Journal revealed recently Google’s plans of a virtual hard drive, dubbed as the “GDrive”. The rumours of such service have been out for years. Apparently in the meantime the company has been tackling technical issues including how to get the storage service to work seamlessly with software on users’ computers so it appears like just another hard drive. The aim of the service is simple: one Google search box for all our personal files and all public data in the internet. A document Google inadvertently released on the Web in March 2006 stated it would be moving toward being able to “store 100% of user data,” such as “emails, Web history, pictures, bookmarks”. The document referred to what appeared to be unannounced Google initiatives, including “GDrive” and said they could help compete with Microsoft. If you follow Google’s business logic the GDrive would be offered to Google customers in exchange for the use their personal information. Whatever the revenue model for such service will be, it pushes the boundary between private and public one step further.


Grim economics of privacy

The emergence of privacy as a tradable has been so rapid that a few researchers, technologist or legislators could see it coming. MySpace did not launch until 2003, with Facebook following a year later. Such a simple change in how we interact and share information with one other, and with organisations, is indicative of the disconnect between legislation and our day-to-day realities.

The tragic school killing incident in sub-urban Finland served as a peculiar signpost for traditional media. For the last couple of years we have been accustomed to reality TV -characters and news filling the popular press. Jokela incident marked in a sad way that reality TV might be losing the battle. In the aftermath of the killings traditional media was doing the same as thousands of ordinary people: searching online forums and profiles, and publishing them to thousands of readers, listeners and viewers. The media reaction to the incident provided us with a grim outline of the future: individuals with powerful tools of communication exploiting the media’s hunger for ever more personal take on the world. This world is far from perceived benefits of the connected world we have been busy envisioning the last decades. Its a world were “big brother” is becoming replaced by “some brother” and as technologies become more widely adopted, even “any brother”.


It’s the culture, stupid!

It would be shortsigthed to blame a networking site or a technology for the sudden redistribution of publicity. It is not the usual suspects, the nation states, credit card companies, CCTV:s, operators, tabloids, connectivity imaging and recording devices or even facebooks of this world that are threatening our privacy. It is we ourselves. We are living at a significant breaking point where societies that used guided by consumer and political choice become shaped by people’s individual voice. The shift from choice to voice is the logical extension of invidualisation. People no longer want to be consumer or citizens that are given a choice of predetermined products, services or ideologies, they want to customise, pimp, tune, remix, edit, blog, share, digg, collaborate and publish. This is evidence of a wider cultural shift towards a society, which is constructed around the interplay of personal voice, and the communities that find this voice interesting and very often useful.

We can trace four different approaches to the new type of publicity:

  • The convenience-argument: It is worth loosing some because you get more personalised services and more fluid, yet securing daily processes. Ordinary people have nothing to hide.
  • The misuse-argument: It is not worth loosing any, since there is always the potential of fraud, identity theft and big brother -surveillance. Privacy has a market value and therefore it should be protected like any other commodity.
  • The sharing-argument: It is imperative to share to live a meaningful life. Openness and expression of one voice are big promises that make privacy as concept somewhat irrelevant.
  • The Narcissus-argument: The culture of connectivity and sharing ones personal life is a perverted and self-centric culture that gradually erodes our sense of independence and individuality. Mediated communication cannot compete with face to face.

There is a clear generation gap between the approaches. The first two arguments tend to be supported by the so called “digital immigrants”, people who were born before the eighties and expect the digital world to comply to the rules of the material. The “digital natives” whom from their early years have been in touch with the mediated networked world typically support the two latter ones. A recent Emily Nussbaum article in the New York Magazine argued that it is the “biggest generation gap since rock’n’roll”.


What drives relative privacy?

Personal information has become central to how we live – from banking online and supermarket shopping, to travelling, social networking and accessing public services. The visible result of this is a trend towards personal, tailored services, and with this comes a society dominated by different forms of information gathering. This is not just something people are subjected to. They are more and more willing to give away information in exchange for the conveniences and benefits they get in return, and are often keen for the recognition and sense of self it affords. We have divided the drivers for the new type of privacy into three cultural ones and five technological ones. Understanding privacy requires a holistic approach; it is currently under serious pressures from multiple sources.


Cultural chances:

1. The age of self-expression.

We live in an age, when it is more and more important to the individuals to express themselves to the community. This is continuum of the individualisation process that marked the 20th century. It is no longer enough for the people to experience and share their own uniqueness through work, family, consumption and representative democracy. More and more of us want their voice to be heard in its full spectrum, as such. Not only through his choices but as more direct communication of ‘authentic self’. This trend manifests in the new genres and media, where the voluntary renouncement of privacy is possible: most visibly blogs, the rest of the content of web 2.0 and the forms of reality TV. In this cultural change, a hope for a return of a new (kind of) sense of community is seen: the voice ties the individual to the community. Mountain bike, rap music, Open Source software and Wikipedia encyclopaedia are based on this kind of community-based production.

2. The age of exchange.

The more relative the line between the privacy and the publicity becomes, the more common it will be to use privacy as an instrument of exchange and negotiation. We often feel we control our privacy and often give up matters thought as private because we assess that we get something we value in return: social relations, more personal service, self-knowledge or our voice to be heard. The situation is new and requires new privacy skills. For different reasons, we can tell more of ourselves than we would like to. But nonetheless, the trade-off with privacy is considered fair by the most, up to the point we feel we are in control of our publicity, because the need for a voice has become an ever strengthening basic need of the subjective well-being of the contemporary man. As in all systems based on exchange, also in the economics of privacy there is a possibility to loose the instrument of exchange without compensation or, on the other hand, “to get rich” or “to speculate”.

3. The age of the common man

The transformation of the media culture that started in the end of the 1990’s, that is the “realisation” and the privatisation of media, is part of the megatrend of the change in privacy. Its most visible manifestations are the march of “the common people” to all the genres of media from the news to the entertainment as well as the continuous need of the media to find new ways to address the common man in the level of her everyday life. Many media live in an intersection of contradictory principles. They should take care of education and of the role of joining the nation together, and equally, find new surface in the more and more fragmenting everyday that often feels banal. Realisation, emphasising the everyday and taking the common people into the spotlight should not be seen as phenomena unconnected from the rest of the society. The new genres have in part encouraged people to believe that the publicity means giving up privacy, and that this renouncement is worthwhile. As the “celebrities” have become “common people” our relationship to publicity has changed.


Technological changes:

1. The age of trace.

The social effects of the constant growth in digitalisation, that is the storage capacity based on microprocessors, and the networking of processors are probably yet to be experienced. Thus, it is likely that ever-greater part of our actions will become public, that is, that they leave a trace, the sharing of which we cannot decide entirely by ourselves. According to some scenarios, the steady increase in storage capacity will lead to a situation, where almost all of our physical action will be recorded. Our purchase, movement, hobbies and, above all, our communication leaves a trace. For the part of the traces we decide ourselves, for example, when we take part in a conversation in an Internet forum, but in the context of the everyday life, very often we are not even aware of leaving a trace.


2. The age of profiles.

Along with the storage and processing capacity, increases the capacity of information technology to form our traces into a picture, that is, a profile. By comparing our profile to those of other similar people, it is possible “to predict”, for instance, consumption behaviour, to classify people. That is to say, by combining digital traces together, we can already now get a relatively good picture of who we are and what else our kind of people do. Although the individualisation makes the classification more and more difficult, also the methods for gathering and processing information develop. The classifications are self-fulfilling and thus conservative by their very nature. For privacy, it is significant how accurate profiles it is possible to create of us and what these profiles are used for.

3. The age of Some Brother.

The surveillance and the communication technologies of the latter part of the 20th century evoked the image of “the Big Brother”, who watches us and knows everything we do. The technology of the 21st century no longer makes it possible to gather all the information in one place. This is a revolutionary change for protection of privacy. Laws and regulations could direct the Big Brother. Now the trace is not left to centralised archives but anywhere where there is digital technology. It is left equally to the mobile phones of our fellow commuters as to the records of credit companies. Instead of the Big Brother “Some Brother” watches us. The supervision of the Some Brother is neither centralised nor systematic. In addition to the dispersion of publicity, also the privacy decomposes.

4. The age of democratisation of publishing technologies.

The transition to digital media has transformed the relationship between the sender and the receiver. With very small, even trivial, investment it is possible to produce material accessible to millions. At the same time, the duration of the publishing process from the first idea to the worldwide distribution is so short, that some even speak of “real-time society” and “transparent society”. When the threshold to publish and make public one’s own ideas and actions has become lower, there are persons among the publishers whose privacy we have traditionally wanted to protect, such as children, intoxicated and mentally ill. To exaggerate a bit, now the moral panic is only a button push away.

5. The age of nets

The networking has brought along the “uncontrol” of information production and sharing. The Internet and peer networks are uncontrolled in principle, and at least, outside national regulation. Although China has the possibility to prevent its citizens to access certain Internet websites, it cannot control what is being written about China in the Internet. The same applies to the information and other records about us gone public. The material is copied forward all the time, and its permanent deletion is not possible. To this respect the Internet is under a change. It also has been argued that the Internet would in part be submitting to the control of the geopolitical system.


The new politics of privacy – rules, tools

So what to do? It is clear that people’s reactions to relative privacy will be diverse. Some have entered the markets of privacy, while others still wait. What happens to the early adopter’s is not certain. Is also only speculative what will happen to the laggards. WE only know for certain that this is not a simply a question of yes or no. Therefore also the tools we envision for the new era must be personal, varied and suit all types of people and communities. It however, is clear that this not solely a technology, or an intellectual property management issue. Privacy is also political. A building block for a riot of practices we have from voting, opinion forming, identity building, responsibility sharing and the stuff trust is made of.

Privacy has value, but it also has meaning to us as individuals. It is what we use to build a picture of whom we are, what is our position in the world and most importantly what is possible for a person in our position and what isn’t. Therefore any system that is built solely on transaction values, not meanings is going to fail to manage our privacy. It looses the moral of sustaining the structures by making them rationalistic and tradable.


Can technology solve it?

However, some technologists believe that there is a possibility for personally sustained identity protection systems, i.e. privacy can be deregulated. These systems are often referred to as Digital Identity Management (DIM). A recent Demos report For Your Information describes DIM as identification techniques that “…are not linked to our personality or family, but are purely transactional in nature – a number or identity code for example…. [But sophisticated] DIM is more than this. It is about an infrastructure that helps individuals to know about, and decide, where information about them is kept. It also helps to set rules about who can find out what about an individual, and how much information they can ask for in a given context. It opens up negotiation about the kind of ‘proof’ needed to complete a transaction – how to prove who I am – and how connectable pieces of information are, both to other bits of information and to the person they are ‘about’.”

DIM, however, is a tool for those who are already widely aware of distinction between classical and relative privacy; who understand the transactional and emergent value of privacy. In other words, it only helps you if you already have a personal “mental tool” for controlling your expression of voice: you recognise when you should not speak too boldly about your personal issues and which discussions are being recorded and broadcasted. How many of us can claim this?

We do not expect to exert full control over what is said, known or thought about us. Bits of information are needed about us by others, usually governed by principles or rules about when and where it is appropriate for people to have access to that information. So, for example, if we want to buy a house, then the bank lending us the money to do so might run a credit check – the information fed to them is the basis on which they can make a judgement about the kind of people we are. Less instrumentally, people need to share and learn about others; to share thoughts and feelings to build a sense of understanding over the world around us. Usually, there are means of redress if a person believes another’s opinion is incorrect or damaging in some way. ‘Digital identities’ – either the ones we actively help produce or the identities held in electronic form by institutions – are increasingly as intimately a part of these processes as people’s offline selves. Personal information is the raw material for this, and DIM offers a simple question: how do we think we should prioritise claims over how personal information is managed?

Too often, despite the rhetoric of convenience to users, the institutional or organisational benefits clearly outweigh the claims of individuals. There are some serious benefits to allowing others to use and share personal information, from better health care, safer places, cheaper clothes and more efficient public services to the connections we can make socially or culturally. These are the commons we already know of, something that is totally commonplace to our modern society, so normal we don’t even notice nor are able to control.

On the other hand, there is possibility that the lower cost and easiness of collaboration and sharing will lead to an emergence of new forms of social action. This is a reason why people so eagerly jump on new networking sites and the like. “We do not know what will come out of it, but we’ll try to build it without anybody the concrete outcome or goal”.

This attitude has been described as the hope for rejuvenation of democracy and social life. One famous fore speaker of such attitude, current Minister of Foreign affairs David Miliband addressed audiences at Google Zeitgeist conference in may 2007. He spoke of a new type of politics, based on mass collaboration skills and tools. A new hopeful era that no longer needs a single implementing body. Miliband describes this as We Can -politics. “Web 2.0 allows the spirit of “I can” to transcend the limits of consumerism, and become a mass movement for cooperation. It allows us to address the fact that side by side with a growing sense that people want more power over their own lives is a sense that we need to assert greater power over the things we cannot buy or sell as individuals – collective goods, such as safety, security, national identity and a stable climate. Instead of citizens acting in isolation, unsure of whether their actions are reciprocated by others, feeling powerless in the face of large organisations and global change, citizens can feel part of a bigger project. They can create a shared willingness to act, their preferences can be aggregated, and can give rise to collective action as well as collective discussion.”

Lets hope he is right.


What do you think?

  • What is the business model for gains created through wide sharing of personal identity (and making trade-offs concerning your privacy), other than providing platforms?
  • What are the real personal benefits of promiscuous expression of voice, apart of convenience of personalised services?
  • How to make these benefits understandable, desirable and accessible to wider number of people, the great majority of people who have not to this date grasped the promises of expressing and sharing ones personal voice?
  • How to make threat of loosing privacy more visible to users not aware of the consequences?
  • Whose responsibility is protecting the new privacy, regulators or self-regulators?
  • How to bridge the gap between the different approaches to privacy?