The Privacy Slippery Slope

By on November 10th, 2017 in Ethics, Privacy & Security

Where did the privacy slippery slope begin? Or perhaps asking the question with more focus, when did we start trading our privacy for “free” access or free things?

When I was a kid (last millennium) and even today there are local newspapers that are delivered and/or made available for free. Clearly these are funded by advertising. As a delivery boy, I was responsible for asking folks to pay for the newspaper anyway, but I was not to object, or stop delivering if they did not pay. In these cases, there is a free item, with some real value, and a minimal loss of privacy. What the newspaper publisher knows, and “sells” to advertisers, is the demographic mix of the folks receiving the publication. Many trade magazines also use this model while trying to maintain an arm’s length separation between ads and content.

Radio was another medium where content was “free” (typically with ads), and listener demographics was the primary invasion of privacy involved. TV followed this model as well. The Nielsen ratings organization developed various methods, typically with viewer consent, to track what programs were most popular. At some point Nielson developed a device to go on the top of the TV with effectively a low quality camera that could identify how many folks were in the room, and perhaps, given data from the residents, which ages and ultimately which individuals were watching. They backed off at that point seeking only to know how many persons were watching at a given time. I worked with Digital Equipment where we were developing “Ad Insertion” systems that could place “local” ads into a TV broadcast stream … bringing more local ad content to a more focused audience. Notice that these paths lead from “consumer aware,” perhaps even opt-in systems, to non-transparent systems where the consumer is unaware of how much of their “demographics” are known to the advertiser, or how focused the ad they view might be.

I suggested in 1978 that a standardized personal computing network should be created and could be funded by a similar advertising model — ah the days of our innocent youth. Clearly this vision has taken off in spades, with online advertising being a primary revenue source for some of the world’s largest corporations (Google, Facebook, etc.) In 1978 Apple computer was 2 years old, Microsoft 3 years, and the IBM PC three years away, as was the introduction of TCP/IP as the standard for the ARPAnet. What was inconceivable in 1978 was the possibility of Terabytes of data accessed over gigabit communications channels by gigahertz computers in parallel with gigabytes of RAM storage. It turns out that size matters.

Our current spot on the slippery slope is well downhill from the “neighborhood newspaper” and “broadcast TV.” What was inconceivable in the era of 2.5 MByte disk systems and millisecond processors in terms of personalization, individual activity tracking, and personality profiling as well as “ad insertion” on an individualized basis, has become the norm. While the “top of the slope” may have involved a very gentle curve over the first years, it is exponential, and driven by “Moore’s Law.” The vision we had in the 20th century was limited, and did not anticipate the ethical challenge of the technology supernova of the 21st century (Tom Friedman’s term).

The gotcha is that our assumptions in policy, corporate ethics, and consumer awareness are running well behind the reality of our technology. Our privacy, personal control, and perhaps even our civilizations are potentially at risk.