It's News To Me
Digital and UX News: The Privacy Question
October 23, 2014
The battle for online privacy continues to heat up as big tech companies and the government struggle to define the degree to which we can keep our personal and transactional information to ourselves. In this episode of The Digital Life, we discuss the latest news from Twitter and Facebook effecting privacy and the user experience, and talk about the latest data breaches from some of the biggest names in finance and telecom.
Now, earlier this year, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google had an agreement with the U.S. government which let them reveal in broad strokes the kinds of requests that they were receiving. It lumped this F-I-S-A or FISA request and the national security letters together and then they could say, “Hey, we received between 0 and 250 or 250 to 1,000 …” I’m not sure of all the ranges, but they were allowed to reveal a little bit within these broad buckets. Twitter is saying, “Hey, that’s not good enough. We want to be a little more granular so for our transparency report, we’re going to take you to court there.”
That sounds really good from the perspective that I’m a Twitter user and, hey, I’d like to know if Twitter is giving up info to the government, but on a certain level, it seems almost like a PR stunts and maybe that’s just the cynic in me saying, “I don’t know as a user that that gets me that much more than, okay, I know you got up to 250 FISA court requests. That doesn’t help me all that much.” Dirk, what do you think about that?
Philosophically, that makes sense to me. However, we live in a world where people from all away across it can badly hurt people way over here where there are active terrorist organizations beheading citizens of our country for effect. This is a nasty, big, scary, intertwined world in a lot of different ways and I am sympathetic to the importance of “national security” to help overcome some of those threats.
I was talking with a friend over lunch about Ebola and how if it gets to the point where in the U.S. that Ebola is spreading and there is a hundred cases in municipality A or B or C, I guarantee you that the government has some very well-thought plans in place for what can be communicated via the broad media and what can’t about those breakouts and about those threats strictly from the perspective of, “Hey, if the masses hear these things, there’s going to be riots. There’s going to be just fleeing and we will degrade into some sort of a state of anarchy.” There’s some point in the Ebola potential, the effects, or whatever that would turn out to be, there are some potential of reaching that point when those things happen.
The government is able to think ahead and make some paternalistic decisions for us around “It would be way worse for people in the aggregate if this got out than not.” There’s going to be some control there that is against the principles of free press and free rights and all of that stuff, and I understand that. I’m not coming down on that side, but my point is I’m not coming down on either side. I think it’s really complicated. In the type of world we live in, the notion of some degree of paternalistic in the interest of national security, I just logically think it has a place even though it flies in the face of equal rights, and these total freedoms that are so ingrained in our culture and in our thinking.
This is a very long winded way of saying I don’t know what to think about stuff like these. Like once it gets into the realm of national security, A, I don’t know which camp to go into. I’m really torn between them, and B, I’m not alerted enough about this specific situation or really pretty much any specific situation that come out and say, “Oh well, in this context, yes, it should absolutely be this way or not.” I take for granted … There’s a lot of stuff out there I don’t know that other people do.
Even though trusting faceless, nameless people with the decisions around that information that could hurt me or impact me and many others in negative ways, even though instinctually you hate to do that. I mean at some point you just have to trust and hope and … I don’t know. Given the complexity and global nature of this world, I don’t know, man. Story like this, I don’t really know what to think.
This enables Facebook to very highly target the demographics for these ads. They know so many things about you, so they know, “Hey, Dirk, you’re going to be more interested in an ad for board games than you are going to be for an ad for something else,” let’s say. Next time you open your favorite application, if they’re signed up for this ad network, all of a sudden Facebook is going to be pushing these highly targeted ads into your mobile universe, which is something they’ve never had the ability or perhaps they’ve had the ability but they have not set up the network to do in quite the same way, and makes them expand beyond the boundaries of the Facebook universe which is wall- … not a walled garden, it’s pretty close to that.
As these tendrils creep out, all these information that you may have given Facebook because you feel like “Hey, it’s contained within the Facebook ecosystem” is now sprouting out into these other areas of your digital life. That may or may not matter, but what’s interesting about Facebook is that they’ve got this depth of personal data on you that’s probably not replicated elsewhere. They have probably got the most personal data on many Americans … I mean maybe you’ve got your educational transcripts and your high school yearbook and your photos at your home and stuff like that, but in one place, I don’t know that definitely not in a digital sense and maybe even in a physical sense. I think that’s a huge repository of personal information and compared to the rest of your life.
What that means now that they can leverage that into other areas of the digital realm, I don’t know, I’m assuming Facebook’s intentions are not necessarily benign or even in our best interest, but it’s very interesting to see where they’re going with this. It’s something that I had not particularly anticipated when I signed up for Facebook.
From the thinking man’s perspective, I really hope that they are anonymizing the information similar to how a bank would protect our login credentials. I don’t know the latest technology at this point, but when I was certainly more knowledgeable about banking websites and security, you’d have multiple different pieces that would be cobbled together to allow you to login, each of those would be stored separately with different identifiers and it would be highly, highly non-trivial for someone to reverse engineer that and put all of the pieces together, that, “Hey, in bucket A, B, C, and D, this is the stuff that belongs to Dirk Knemeyer. Boom! I’m going to pull it all together.”
As long as the Facebook data, the Internet data, whatever the hell data they’ve got on us is being treated similarly, I don’t have a big problem with it. I mean with what the Internet is, with how it behaves, with the benefits we get from it, like leveraging data makes sense. I want it to be done in a way that is going to protect my identity, that is going to protect me in future ways that are … getting back to the unintended consequences we talked about before … where I could be vulnerable. I take for granted that Facebook and any other companies dealing with this data are not treating it in such a precious and careful way, and assuming that they’re not, that’s a big freaking problem as far as I’m concerned. If it were being treated properly, I really wouldn’t have an issue with it.
It’s like everybody wants everything. We want all the conveniences, all the speed, all the personalization, but no, damn it, you can’t have any of my data. We all want our cake and eat it too. My perspective is that this whole … I was going to say generation, but I don’t think that’s the right word. This whole paradigm that we’re in now is based on getting massive data and using it and leveraging it in the best ways possible to create conveniences and services and opportunity. Look, that’s the world that we’re in and we collectively chosen it by inertia if nothing else, so okay, fine, but protect it. Really treat it as preciously as financial institutions treat our key data.
Maybe that’s being done, and if it is, hurrah! I guess I’m pretty happy with the state of things. I take for granted that it’s not and it really, really needs to be.
I believe those were more prosaic pieces of data. I don’t believe those were Social Security numbers but rather emails and things like that, but not account information from what I understand. Both of those headlines remind us how tenuous this protection is around our digital data and our digital lives online. How we move forward, especially in our development of our online selves is going to hinge partially, at least, on our ability to prove who we are and to protect our information when it needs protecting. These are obviously continuing issues that we’re going to struggle with.
Recently now, I’m using a password generation service that is generating this really long, probably near impossible to reverse engineer passwords and then having the service manage that. Now, the service itself, of course, could be corrupted, but I’m caring enough about security and I’m aware enough about the threats and the exposure that I’m, in my mind, up leveling and making it harder for someone to hack me or someone to steal my identity or corrupt one of the services that are meaningful to me although I use this on everything at this point, not just meaningful services.
I think it probably varies for all of us. I mean probably many of our listeners had a safer approach to security, password-wise than I did in the past. Definitely the changes in what’s out there and how services behave and the degree to which things are being compromised and corrupted has pushed me down a more rigorous path for myself. It probably still isn’t even enough, but I guess it’s just a personal thing of where what’s the relationship between your comfort and your security.
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