The curtain falls on the notion of privacy
The net curtain. After decades of keeping prying eyes out of suburban
living rooms, the simple net curtain can tell us a thing or two about
privacy. Cast your mind back to the start of this century:
Terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center lead to the birth of the Patriot Act.
Myspace launches, becomes one of the most popular social media sites ever, and paves the way for Facebook et al..
Sales of net curtains go into decline, dropping 4% in the next 3 years.
What is the Internet of Things?
Coincidence? Perhaps. But the birth of internet based social networks and the rise of governmental anti-terrorism activity post 9/11 have helped to create a climate where data collection is well-funded, commercialised, and commonly accepted.2
In an era where big data is using algorithms to piece together nuggets of data to reveal an individual’s identity, are concepts of privacy and consent outdated?3
Are digital systems eroding the simple notion that there can be anonymity in a crowd?4
Every day, hundreds of pieces of information about you are recorded and stored on a networked device. Data about your health, your activity, your buying preferences, finances and more, are all available to interested parties who care to look for them.
In some instances, you were unaware that the data was being collected, but in most instances, you freely offered up the information in return for discounts, rewards or social inclusion. This tradeoff between security, convenience and privacy is changing traditional perceptions of what privacy means.5
For many, these changes are unsettling and carry inherent risk, but for those too young to remember the heyday of the net curtain, private life may already be an illusion. They’ve grown up in a world where they are surveilled, their employer owns their emails and the government listens to their phone calls… and yet their desire to connect and maintain relationships online mean they’re happy to make this compromise.
What will the future look like if, as some predict, social conformity continues to be a regressive force on privacy? What sacrifices will we need to make, what concessions, and what opportunities will be created for those willing to capitalize on this new world of abundant data?
What lies behind the curtain? The answer remains as intriguing as ever.
Where public ends and private begins
The evolution of privacy is inseparably combined with the type and quantity of data we’re divulging to the online community. So, let’s start with some basic numbers to put things in context:
That means nearly half of the world’s population sharing information about themselves online: Today, Facebook alone has around 2 billion users6, a number that is likely to be dwarfed in a future where even greater numbers of the world’s population will have internet access.7
And we like to share.8
Adult internet users claim to have posted the following online.
Among younger users who have grown up free of the traditional ideas of privacy, these numbers are likely to be much higher.
Now, add to this picture the increasing presence of Artificial Intelligence in our homes, our cars and our wearable technology. The ‘Internet of Things’ is creating a future where the lines between our on and offline lives are blurred beyond any meaningful recognition.
As Homero Gil de Zuniga, Director of Digital Media Research at the University of Texas-Austin stated;
“By 2025, many of the issues, behaviors and information we consider to be private today will not be so. Information will be even more pervasive, even more liquid and portable. The digital private sphere and the digital public sphere will most likely, completely overlap”.9
While some people will predictably rebel against this development, evidence suggests that our perception of privacy will shift and a new balance between public security and private information will be found.10
Faced with the prospect of turning our backs on the social inclusion and conveniences of modern life that our online lives afford, or re-evaluating our privacy standards, most will choose the latter.11 Indeed, most already do.
accept that disclosure of personal
information is a
‘fact of modern life’.
aged 25 – 34 view their personal
information as a
commodity to be traded.12
A report by the PEW Research Centre found that people are happy to accept surprising incursions into their privacy in return for relatively minor benefits:
- 54% would accept CCTV with facial recognition in their workplace if it helped to catch a petty thief
- 52% would be happy for their health information to be recorded on a third-party website if it helped the booking process for visits to their doctor
- 47% would allow their supermarket to SELL data on their shopping habits and preferences in return for discounts13
It is hard to imagine a scenario whereby this trend could be reversed, or even slowed. A series of well publicised stories relating to the way our personal information is collected, used, and secured, have done little to dissuade people from continuing to publish and share their personal information:
- Snowden – 1.7m documents14
- Equifax – 143m records15
- Spambot – 700m records16
It seems that a willingness to divulge personal information is simply now just a fact of life17, that we prefer convenience to confidentiality, security to secrecy.