Fight for your privacy or lose it, says Eric Schmidt

Google's Eric Schmidt says to fight for your privacy or you will lose it to the logic of security. Others say hackers, not Google, are the real privacy threat.

When you think about people advocating privacy, it's doubtful that Eric Schmidt, Google Executive Chairman, springs to mind. Just the same, Schmidt told The Telegraph, "Whenever there's a conflict, the logic of security will trump the right to privacy."

Regarding privacy, David House, chairman of Brocade Communications, said, "Give it up, it's over - everybody's going to know everything." At the Ethernet Innovation Summit, House said not to worry about Google tracking every click to serve up ads. "It's just a computer out there that knows about you. This is just a bunch of data and big data and databases that's marketing to a market of one." The real privacy threat is from hackers, according to House. "Everything is going to be known about you, and the guy who can hack into it is going to know everything about you. It's the hacker you need to worry about, not Google itself."

But others might argue that ideas put forth by Schmidt and Google Ideas Director Jared Cohen in The New Digital Age, are something to worry about. Schmidt long ago said that "no anonymity is the future of the web." In reviewing the book, the CS Monitor wrote that the duo's "sophisticated analysis of the future of identity on a radically transparent network where individual privacy is essentially dead. With this death of privacy, they explain, public reputation becomes our most valuable asset - the thing that will most define our success and failure in a hypervisible world."

The authors wrote in The New Digital Age:

The communication technologies we use today are invasive by design, collecting our photos, comments and friends into giant databases that are searchable and, in the absence of outside regulation, fair game for employers, university admissions personnel, and town gossips.

Schmidt and Cohen also warned, "We are what we tweet." But a new study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project suggests that a tweet by a teen may not necessarily mean what it says. Teens are sharing more information on social networks than they were in the past, but "they are also taking a variety of technical and non-technical steps to manage the privacy of that information."

Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, explained:

My favorite finding of Pew's is that 58% of teens cloak their messages either through inside jokes or other obscure references, with more older teens (62%) engaging in this practice than younger teens (46%). This is the practice that I've seen significantly rise since I first started doing work on teens' engagement with social media. It's the source of what Alice Marwick and I describe as "social steganography" in our paper on teen privacy practices.

Drone surveillance

Neither encryption, nor steganography will help protect your privacy regarding ubiquitous surveillance and drones. Again, it is a bit surprising that Schmidt is one of the voices pointing this out. In an interview with the Guardian, Schmidt said international treaties should ban inexpensive little drones before everyone who wants one, including terrorists, can fly one. What if "you're having a dispute with your neighbor," Schmidt asked. "How would you feel if your neighbor went over and bought a commercial observation drone that they can launch from their back yard? It just flies over your house all day. How would you feel about it?"

You knew it would happen and indeed it already has in Seattle. A local woman told Capitol Hill Seattle:

A stranger set an aerial drone into flight over my yard and beside my house near Miller Playfield. I initially mistook its noisy buzzing for a weed-whacker on this warm spring day. After several minutes, I looked out my third-story window to see a drone hovering a few feet away. My husband went to talk to the man on the sidewalk outside our home who was operating the drone with a remote control, to ask him to not fly his drone near our home. The man insisted that it is legal for him to fly an aerial drone over our yard and adjacent to our windows. He noted that the drone has a camera, which transmits images he viewed through a set of glasses. He purported to be doing "research". We are extremely concerned, as he could very easily be a criminal who plans to break into our house or a peeping-tom.

Not all transparency is good

Other towns such as in Dufferin County, Canada, have completely given up on privacy in other ways. While transparency is usually a good thing, some residents are refusing to drink the privacy-is-dead Kool-Aid and are fuming over being forced to use clear garbage bags. Some people did try to fight against this privacy invasion, protesting that clear garbage bags make for an "Orwellian" existence. Protester Eibl Sedlmaier said it gave her "déjà vu from 45 years ago when the Soviet Union invaded her native Czechoslovakia." A protesting Facebook group wrote, "People are sensitive about their garbage. It is a very private issue for some people."

So what did fighting for privacy rights get the people of Orangeville? "Starting on June 1, residents can place two 20-by-22-inch opaque privacy bags inside the clear garbage bag they leave on the curb for pickup. Households can also apply to the county for additional privacy bags."

Privacy legislation

When talking technology, not trash, Schmidt and Cohen argued that the days of everyone being famous for 15 minutes are long gone. Due to the "unforgiving nature of the Internet, everyone will be famous forever." They wrote, "It's only a question of how many people are paying attention, and why." They believe "that laws can be changed and governments can be improved. Privacy legislation can protect people, corrupt politicians can be exposed, and bureaucracies can be made more efficient."

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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