Privacy in an Information Abundant World

This weekend I’ve attended an interesting talk by Christian Heller titled Embracing Post-Privacy. Here at the CCC Congres in Berlin, the speaker had a tough audience, since most of the visitors can be characterized as paranoid hacker rebels. Hearing about how we should go radically transparent and broadcast our life online infuriated many of them. I used to have the same mindset and I still hear it among many of my friends and colleagues: Google knows everything about you now!

Christian gave me some nice new insights into the world of post-privacy. For example he talked about Equiveillance – the surveillance from both the bottom and the top. Which would for example allow you to point your HD camera at the officers who are also pointing their car-cams at you. Naturally, the practitioners of equiveillance experience a lot of frustrations since there are no laws that stimulate bi-directional surveillance (i.e. protecting those that want to record the other). I myself have been frustrated many times when I was not allowed to take pictures or video footage in a certain venue. Fortunately, looking at advancements in recording technology, we will soon have ubiquitous recording by tiny unseeable devices.

Often the‘googling employer’ is used as an example to raise concerns about one’s publicly exposed life. Christian quite accurately states that if no information is available on googling, suspicion is increased. In my own hiring experiences, I’m well aware of the importance of a digital trail. Additionally, small mistakes in the past become obsolete knowledge – obsoledge – pretty quickly thanks to the dynamics of information abundance: as (semantic) search technology increases, only the relevant and timely information surfaces. The same goes for identity theft: only the trustworthy information surfaces.

One thing I really missed in the presentation I enjoyed, was a breakdown of what privacy actually is. In my own wording, privacy is ‘the containment of information one doesn’t want to disclose fully’. When reading this sentence, some alarm bells go off with the words ‘containment of information’. The containment of information is something that goes against the grain of the current society. The nature of information is explained well in the book Revolutionary Wealth by Alvin Toffler. Basically, contrary to physical objects, information spreads as soon as you touch it. In business this has the effect of industries like the recording and movie industry collapsing because of business models that are dependent on the containment of information. As Kevin Kelly likes to put it in his essay Beyond Free: the value is no longer in the things that can be copied by the internet’s copying machine, but rather in things that cannot be copied. Notable examples of new valuables that cannot be copied are ‘trust’ and ‘relevancy’.

This is bad news for privacy. The odds are stacked against it, especially when private information is digitized – which will always be the case in the not so distant future. When thinking about privacy, an important factor is trust. People feel that they have privacy when they trust that certain information is contained within a small distance. Distance meaning the number of people that touch upon it. So if for example I would tell something intimate to my girlfriend, I trust that it doesn’t leak beyond her. The same is with physical rooms, I trust my house and would be more inclined to share my secrets there.

So we know trust plays a key role in privacy. Also, it is something that cannot be copied, making it scarce and valuable in today’s world. In essence, being trustworthy, becomes a real competitive advantage in business – much more then it used to be. Hopefully, this will spark re-evaluation of current trust relationships between people and organizations. For example, I trust my bank in that I can access my money securely at all times, but I don’t trust them with my attention data. My bank has a 10 year log of all the transactions I did, what shops, what products, what locations. This data can be used to give me some awesome recommendations, but I’m not getting any. In fact, I don’t know what they are doing with this data and it sure as hell is not owned by me. So in a way, my bank doesn’t have my full trust like many other services I use. I wonder if this will change in the coming years, will people demand data portability and transparency?

Another piece of food-for-thought is relating trust to the attention economy. Many of the speculators on the attention economy have touched upon using attention – the measurable personalized relevance of information – as a currency to do transactions. Hence projects like ‘The Attention Trust’ etc. Could other information-abundance concepts like trust also be measured and used for transactions?

Please give me some of your thoughts!