Transition from Privacy 1.0 to Privacy 2.0, and a few ways to protect ourselves… – by “Michael A”

As the world and human race have evolved, so has the means by which we communicate. At first, hand signals, cave drawings and the primitive languages of ‘caveman’ marked the earliest forms of communication. This transitioned into fully formed languages and writing. Along with writing, new sources of media such as photos, videos and songs became popular forms of communication. And with the invention of the silicon chip, all forms of communication became available and transferable through computers. This marked the beginning of our shift toward digital data.

Offline dossier to online dossier

Modern information technology trends suggest that we have an insatiable desire to aggregate all of our information through digital means. Companies such as Facebook, Flickr and Google provide useful services to users that participate in these communities. Other products, for whatever reason, seem only to be a nuisance that create no palpable value (See Blippy, Foursquare; and again later). The importances of these products reside in their ability to provide real-world effects, through Internet means. Friends can stay connected through Facebook with common sharing of information and can inform each other of given locations, so as to make the connection come full circle back into the real-world. In the process, small bits of information are left behind.

Important or not, this data is collected, stored and forever connected to our username, or IP address. Companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon target ads and ‘recommended products’ based on proprietary algorithms coupled with all of their known information. If you look for a few programming books on Amazon, chances are you’re going to get a suggestion for some sort of Tim O’Rielly book next time you log on. Amazon has taken the place of a bookstore employee that suggests the next related book for whatever your interest may be. In this case, it does so instantly and with better-assembled data about a person’s interests. Whether you like it or not, these digital dossiers of personal information are formed based on everything digital. From places you’ve been, websites you’ve visited, products you’ve viewed or mouse movements you’ve made.

Some (myself included) choose to participate in the construction of our digital dossiers. Facebook has become a great way to transform the entire social portion of people’s lives into 1’s and 0’s that are stored on the Internet.  (Watch)  Users actively participate in the construction process by uploading pictures, maintaining conversations through posts, messages or chats or liking certain bands, movies, or books. Ever wondered what all the data might look like aggregated? (Try it out, seriously, download all of your FB data and see the substantiality).  Small tidbits of information observed in pieces may seem inconsequential. But, when aggregated, this information creates a much different situation and it becomes much more valuable. The individual wants to protect the dossier, while other services want to obtain and exploit the dossier.

What if privacy is breached?

With most personal information digitized, such as Facebook likes, bank statements, medical records, or relationship statuses, how can we be sure that it will always remain in a secure location? Sure, server warehouses seem safe (maybe not).  But what if the data is stolen/found/obtained over the Internet? (Firesheep) Imagine the outbreak if Facebook, Google or some other products were found to be emitting data about its users to others. Oh wait…whoops  (Here, Here, Here).  There’s sever backlash when an Internet service fails to make good on its social contract of maintaining tight security of users’ data. On the other hand, Foursquare and Facebook Locations are built on the premise that people want to share their much more with others. The iPhone OS 5 has this feature as well that allows GPS tracking of other phones (sometimes for incriminating purposes).

How can we be sure that this information with always be for the betterment of society? Up to the minute tracking abilities could possible pose security threats to anyone that may be interested exploiting them.

Whatever our obsession may be with sharing personal information, it could pose a substantial threat if used in ways that target the real-world individual from digital information. The interest in uploading, sharing and aggregating all information lies in the movement to digitize the real world. The comfort levels that some experience on the Internet suggests either misunderstanding of the dangers involved, or irrational behavior.

A few ways to protect yourself:

–       For those who maintain personal websites and seek protection, Robots.txt allows the creator to disallow most web-crawling bots to index such sites. While most major search engines support it, it is not perfect. A good start, nonetheless.

–       To create secure files, TrueCrypt provide a free, open-sourced product that will take any file, encrypt and mount it to a disk image with password protection.

–       For a secure email service, Hushmail is considered the best.

–       Good web practices such as disabling cookies or taking note when a certain website is secure (HTTPS or SSL encrypted) will help prevent any unnoticed breached or privacy

 

Should there even be more protection?

While taking certain precautionary measures is important, such as described above, there is no guarantee that all digital information amassed will be completely protected. The only sure-fire way to make sure is to not participate in the creation of a digital dossier in the first place. But, for most it’s too late. In this case, what else can be done to bring about more protection from potential leaks of data? Government intervention or control won’t work; as they’re most likely those that could best use such information for incriminating purposes. Legislation could only seek retribution after data is already ‘misplaced’ and would not create any new incentives to further protect it. Is there anything that can legitimately protect someone like me?

What about the idea of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ in this context? If we all have incriminating, embarrassing, or private information online, then we all at the mercy of those who control such data. Surely there’s someone else out there with worse or more incriminating or more embarrassing information than I have. As such, any exposure will look relatively much worse for them; and as long as I’m not the worst, I’m not a target…Yeah, that’s probably the best way to think about it.

Stealth Mode is Stupid: Why Your Ideas Don’t Matter – by “Michael W”

It’s a longstanding cliche in the world of tech start-ups. “I’d love to chat about my company, but we’re in stealth mode.” The concern is that sharing the idea is more dangerous than not sharing it. In my experience I have found the exact opposite to be true. Stealth mode is stupid for at least three reasons: 1) ideas are overrated, 2) execution is infinitely more important, and 3) freely sharing ideas can aid in their execution. This is an essential lesson for tech start-ups, but its implications reach far beyond Silicon Valley.

Ideas are Overrated

To start with, ideas are painfully overvalued, both anecdotally — by aspiring entrepreneurs, and formally — by our legal system. Right now thousands of people are contemplating the same, next big idea. But what separates these faceless masses from the one that will emerge as the next Google? In a word, execution. Ideas are everywhere, but great implementation is rare. New entrepreneurs, who have not yet gone through the most critical stage of a young company — its execution — are prone to undervaluing its importance.

The US patent system, meanwhile, similarly overvalues ideas. It protects the expression of ideas that are both “novel” and “non-obvious,” but realistically, in the digital age, for how long do new ideas remain “non-obvious”? In the Twitter age ideas spread nearly instantly. And because of our abundant access to information, in general, the process of trends converging to form new ideas is in plain view for almost anyone to see. Furthermore, the ideas that underly the most successful tech companies of the past decade — Google, YouTube, and Facebook — were neither novel nor non-obvious when they made their marks.

The Story of Facebook

Facebook, in particular, provides an excellent case study. The idea of social networking first emerged in the late 90’s. Live Journal started in 1999; Friendster in 2002; and Tribe.net in 2003. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t launch Facebook until the spring of 2004. At that point it would be unthinkable to label social networking as a new idea. But it was. In fact, two separate groups claimed that Zuckerberg had stolen the idea from them. Facebook had to settle one of the cases out of court (due to pressures stemming from contract law and public relations, not any valid IP concerns), but the very occurrence of the lawsuit, that someone could even think that the idea of social networking was somehow novel or non-obvious in 2003, underscores our societal misunderstanding of ideas.

Why did Facebook garner 400 million users, then, even though it wasn’t a new idea? Because of its execution. It was part luck, part skill, but regardless, it was the actualization of Facebook, not the idea of a social network (or even the idea of a college-centric social network), which created so much value. The same goes for every success story. Search was old news by the time Google entered onto the scene in 1997. But they implemented it much, much better than the competition. Hundreds of streaming video sites were sprouting up in 2004. But YouTube executed the idea better than anyone else.

And why were so many people working on these ideas in the first place? Because there were highly visible trends that were converging to create obvious new opportunities: the growth of the internet made search a necessity; increasing broadband penetration made internet video feasible; and in the wake of the success of the blogosphere, social media was emerging as the next major frontier on the web.

“Ideas are Just a Multiplier of Execution”

As the founder of CD Baby, Derek Sivers, put it, “ideas are just a multiplier of execution.”  He explains that varying degrees of execution are worth roughly between $1 and $10,000,000, but ideas are only worth between negative 1 and 20. Therefore, a weak idea with flawless execution can be worth $10,000,000, but the best idea in the world with poor execution is worth just $20. These numbers are obviously metaphorical proxies, but the concept is spot-on. And Sivers of all people would know: he took a relatively boring idea (selling independently-produced CD’s on the Internet), and turned it into a $20 million company.

If stealth mode was merely unhelpful it would be one thing, but it is actively harmful to new ventures. The people who appear most threatening in the stealth mode worldview — industry peers, talented coders, angel investors, etc. — are actually the people who could provide the most help. By closing themselves off to these potential resources, stealth mode companies are their own worst enemies.

What about Apple?

One common retort to this critique of stealth mode is, “what about Apple?” This of course refers to the fact that Apple, Inc., the fifth largest company in the US, uses intense secrecy as part of their unquestionably successful product development and marketing efforts. The short answer is: you’re not Apple.  They are a thirty-five year-old company with hundreds of retail locations, tens of thousands of employees, and tens of billions of dollars in the bank. Their sophisticated use of secrecy has no bearing whatsoever on a small start-up. [Note: this isn’t to suggest that Apple has a healthy attitude towards intellectual property, because I don’t think they do, but that is for a different blog post.]

Fear of Sharing: Broader Implications

The concept that overprotecting ideas can actively hurt companies is something that applies to all firms, not just start-ups. Media conglomerates, for instance, closely guard their content, because, like rookie entrepreneurs, they think not sharing it is less dangerous than sharing it. But they’re wrong.

This mistake is perhaps best illustrated by the band Ok Go, whose lead singer wrote a scathing op-ed in the NY Times this past weekend, which chronicled his band’s tumultuous experience with a major record label. Ok Go was signed by EMI in 2000. They floundered for years, until in 2005 the band used their own funds to make a low-budget music video — without the aid nor the permission of their label — that went on to become a YouTube sensation. The label, though, viewed the video as illegal, despite the fact that it singlehandedly propelled the band to international stardom, resulted in millions of legally sold records (most of the profits of which went to the label), and even earned the band a Grammy. Recently EMI disabled embedding on this video so that it can no longer be shared across the Internet, even in light of how it being shared in the first place is precisely what proved to be such a boon for the band and the label. Consequently, EMI is preventing the next Ok Go from ever emerging. Consumers lose, bands lose, and EMI loses. Why are they doing it? It’s really unclear.

Conclusion

Whether you’re a lone hacker or a Fortune 500 media company: your ideas don’t really matter. So stop trying to protect them, and start trying to implement them better.

Your Big Brother is Watching You! Actually. – by “Andrew C”

surveillance-cameras-400

In1949, George Orwell wrote 1984, a novel describing a nightmarish future in which England, fallen to socialism and renamed Airstrip One, is ruled with an iron fist by an oppressive, authoritarian government. In the novel, Orwell describes how, with adequate technology, a regime could dominate the masses through constant surveillance.  Specifically, in the dystopian nightmare of 1984, “Big Brother” monitors every citizen 24 hours a day through the television set in their living room.  Ultimately, Orwell’s vision never truly came to pass, as in the end it is simply impossible for a government to monitor every individual at all times.  However, as surveillance cameras become increasingly inexpensive and the ability to share media over the internet becomes increasingly efficient, the actions of everyday individuals have come more and more under the eye of public scrutiny.  In today’s world, any individual walking down the street can reasonably expect to be videotaped by anything ranging from remote surveillance cameras, to roving Google Street View vans, to anybody carrying a cell phone purchased within the last five years and to have that video posted online.  As such, those who commit shameful, illegal, or simply bizarre acts can and must accept that their actions may be broadcasted to and scrutinized by an anonymous, faceless horde of users.

Ironically, England, the setting for Orwell’s 1984 has become one of the single most disturbing examples of the loss of privacy in the modern world.  It is currently estimated that there is one camera for every fourteen British citizens. Recently, the British government has quite literally set aside £400 million to install 24 hour surveillance cameras in the homes of 20,000 families in order to ensure that children attend school, go to bed on time, and eat proper meals.  Even better, the government plans to hire private security contractors to perform home checks upon the families in question.  The irony is beyond overwhelming.

However, it has nevertheless become increasingly obvious that no one government can monitor an entire population internet-eyes1at all times.  Thankfully, the anonymous masses of the internet have proven to be more than willing to fill in the gaps the government leaves behind.  As such, we increasingly see “Big Brother” being replaced with your actual big brother (and your neighbors, co-workers, and complete strangers).  In England, one program in particular, called Internet Eyes, would have sent George Orwell into fatal convulsive seizures.  The program, which will go live in Stratford-upon-Avon in late November, aims to harness the power of Web 2.0 by directly connecting live feed from surveillance cameras to a vast swarm of users.  The theory behind the program is that with more eyes watching the footage more crimes can be averted.  The website is being promoted as a sort of game which everyday individuals can play in their spare time.  Users, who will be allowed to register for free, will be allowed to view real-time random video feeds from participating establishments across the country.  Any viewer who spots suspicious activity from a specific camera can anonymously inform the camera owner.  Users will then receive a certain amount of points based upon the quality of the alert.  The user with the most points at the end of the month will receive a £1000 prize.  Fantastically, Tony Morgan, one of the founders of Internet Eyes, claims that it will “give people something better to do than watching Big Brother when everyone is asleep.” Put another way: why watch Big Brother when you can be Big Brother?

However, in the end, this website is not simply another game.  Rather, it is a breach of privacy more distasteful than anything ever imagined by George Orwell.  While Internet Eyes may very well be an effective way of preventing vandalism and shoplifting it also encourages private citizens to spy on their neighbors.  Furthermore, if previous cases have shown us anything it is that the scope and potential damage of public scrutiny can be far greater than that of a government investigation or surveillance.  While Internet Eyes will in fact connect users to random video feeds it is impossible to eliminate the possibility that Internet Eyes could reveal potentially damaging private information (i.e. sexual orientation, political affiliation, etc) to one’s loved ones, co-workers, or neighbors.  How could an individual stage a protest knowing that his or her boss might not only disapprove, but be watching him? As such, it is nearly impossible to argue that websites like Internet Eyes, and the general trend towards increased scrutiny in the Web 2.0 world, are increasingly having a chilling effect upon free speech and expression.

However, in the end the question is not necessarily straightforward at all.  The same features that make constant surveillance and public scrutiny such an insidious problem in today’s world have proven to be an incredibly powerful and valuable tool in fighting oppression across the globe.  Easy access to video cameras and internet access, and the rise of the generative Web 2.0, have ensured that, in the modern world, those who are oppressed are finding it increasingly easy to record and disseminate their messages.  As such, in the end, we need to find some way to strike a balance between the benefits of a free and open internet and the dangers of the constant threat of surveillance.

How can we accomplish that? Quite frankly, I’m not sure, but this seems like a fantastic bet.

Google unveils “unprecedented” privacy dashboard – by “Samuel D”

Much has been made of the dangers of trusting all your private data to Google. Not only does the search giant host your emails and contact lists, but your entire search history, your blog posts, your documents, your YouTube videos, and even your phone records. In response to growing concerns as to what they might do with all your data, Google released the Google Privacy Dashboard this week–claiming to be the “first Internet company” to offer such a product. The official blog post explains:

Over the past 11 years, Google has focused on building innovative products for our users. Today, with hundreds of millions of people using those products around the world, we are very aware of the trust that you have placed in us, and our responsibility to protect your privacy and data. Transparency, choice and control have become a key part of Google’s philosophy, and today, we’re happy to announce that we’re doing even more.

The Dashboard aims to give users greater transparency and control over their data. Users log in to their account and can view exactly what data Google hosts from over twenty products. For each product, the Dashboard provides direct links to the privacy settings for that service. Google concludes, “The scale and level of detail of the Dashboard is unprecedented, and we’re delighted to be the first Internet company to offer this — and we hope it will become the standard.”

Given Google’s grand proclamations about the groundbreaking Dashboard, response to the announcement has been subdued at best. Advocacy group Consumer Watchdog has been one of the most vocal opponents to Google’s privacy policies. The organization said the Dashboard was a step in the right direction, but wanted Google to give “the ability to stop being tracked by the company and to delete information associated with their computer’s IP address from the Google servers.” One advocate added, “If Google really wanted to give users control over their privacy it would give consumers the ability to be anonymous from the company and its advertisers in crucial areas such as search data and online behavior.” The group suggested that Google added a “Make Me Anonymous” or “Don’t Track” button to each service listed in the dashboard.

Outside of advocacy groups, response to the Dashboard was mostly negative. Tech blog Mashable wrote, “Sure, it’s nice to have all these in one place, should you ever want to review all your private information stored at Google at once, but there’s nothing really new about this list; you could even call it a privacy-related compilation. Unfortunately, it’s also an unpleasant reminder of just how much data you’re giving out to Google (and other online services).” Valleywag noted, “But, really, it just scares the crap out of you. Google knows all.”

The Dashboard clearly was not received as Google anticipated–it certainly is only seen as the first step in the right direction. Will they allow users to remain anonymous and prevent data from being attached to their IP address? Will they allow users to instantly delete all their data from Google’s servers? Would they allow the police to subpoena access to a user’s Dashboard? Only time will tell how Google will live up to its promise of “choice and control.”

– Google Dashboard explained on YouTube.

– Check out what Google knows about you here: www.google.com/dashboard