Privacy is a concept, not a regime

In this O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Dr. Gilad Rosner talks about data privacy, and Alasdair Allan chats about the broken IoT.

In this podcast episode, I catch up with Dr. Gilad Rosner, a visiting researcher at the Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute in England. Rosner focuses on privacy, digital identity, and public policy, and is launching an Internet of Things Privacy Forum. We talk about personal data privacy in the age of the Internet of Things (IoT), privacy as a social characteristic, an emerging design ethos for technologists, and whether or not we actually own our personal data. Rosner characterizes personal data privacy as a social construct and addresses the notion that privacy is dead:

“Firstly, it’s important to recognize the idea that privacy is not a regime to control information. Privacy is a much larger concept than that. Regimes to control information are ways that we as a society preserve privacy, but privacy itself emerges from social needs and from individual human needs. The idea that privacy is dead comes from the vulnerability that people are feeling because they can see that it’s very difficult to maintain walls between their informational spheres, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t countercurrents to that, and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways, as we go forward, to improve privacy preservation in the electronic spaces that we continue to move into.”

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As we move more and more into these electronic spaces and the Internet of Things becomes democratized, our notions of privacy are shifting on a cultural level beyond anything we’ve experienced as a society before. Rosner notes the behavioral implications of our physical world becoming more digital:

“We’re becoming electronic citizens. We’re becoming digital citizens. We are creating an electronic society that runs through and in parallel with the physical society that we’ve always been part of. The way that we conceive of the world, and the way that we conceive of how society works, how culture works, is derived of thousands and thousands of years of interaction in our physical social space. It involves talking; it involves groups; it involves paper and writing. We’ve just added, in only these last 50 years, a new dimension to what it means to be part of the human society.

“The issue of control is an overlay to all of that, because the information’s coming, and the information’s being generated, and the information’s being recorded. This other issue of control happens orthogonally to that. It’s determined in part by technology: What can the system do? What is the capacity of the system to actually control things? It’s determined by law. It’s determined by contract. It’s determined by culture and behavior. All of those issues swirl around. We know how to behave and what kind of controls we have within our individual societies and groups, because we’ve had thousands of years to work on that. As far as what we’ve got in the electronic domain, that is all new.”

As the volume of our documented personal data increases and the methods of delivery expand, “we’re finding ourselves at sea,” Rosner says, unable to control our information and its dissemination in the ways we’re used to:

“The reason that privacy is on people’s lips and it’s such a popular topic is because this issue pervades society, because we are shedding data. We are swimming in information more and more and more. The exchange of that information, the technologies that underpin that, the sharing — that is what is moving faster and faster, and people are aware of it. It makes them a little uncomfortable, because information — how we talk about ourselves, how we share information about ourselves — has power and relates to our standing within society.

“There’s the real, basic harms — “If this information gets out, I could lose my job” — but there’s also just the very natural way that we divide up our informational lives. What you tell your parents may not be what you tell your kids. What you tell your friends is not what you tell your boss. What you tell one friend is not what you tell another friend. What you tell Google is not necessarily what you tell Facebook.

“As we experience those walls becoming more and more porous, which runs counter to the way that we live in society, where we have much more control over what we say to people, at least based on things like trust, and “Did I actually open my mouth and tell that person? Did I put it in an email or not?” Through the innocent uses of these technologies, we are finding ourselves at sea, not necessarily in command of the exchange of information the way that we have come to know.”

Rosner also addresses the question of whether we actually own our personal data. “Any kind of personal data that resembles a fact,” Rosner says, “is not ownable in a lot of different legal regimes”…and the idea that we own our data is harmful “because it fools people into thinking that they’ve got more control over their information.”

Also in this podcast…

In the second segment of this episode, O’Reilly’s director of online content Mac Slocum talks with Alasdair Allan, director of Babilim Light Industries about the broken nature of the Internet of Things, why data is a local problem, and why he’s obsessed with Kickstarter.

You can listen to the podcast in the player embedded above or download it through SoundCloud or iTunes.

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