Monday, April 26, 2004

Who's Your Favourite Big Brother?

see edited version at Media Guardian, April 26th, 2004

In January 1999, not long after Intel had been thrown into a flap over apparently being able to track people through their recently launched Pentium III chip, Sun’s CEO, Scott McNeally famously said at a press conference, “You already have zero privacy. Get over it".

Needless to say, this upset a lot of people – partly for it’s glibness and partly for its candor - but the buzz around Internet privacy more or less died down in the five years following. People started to turn their Internet thoughts to keeping their businesses alive and their privacy thoughts to the far more tangible and material issues of national ID card schemes, backed by the handmaidens of biometrics and DNA databases.

After spending much of the nineties in the trenches of the Internet privacy debate, only to see it’s importance retreat, it’s great to see that serial innovators like Google, Amazon and the founders of Skype are once again pushing the boundaries of what we understand as private and public space as they advance respectively into e-mail, search and telephony. Although thanks to the weblogs you can browse the issues, it makes you regret not being able to make this week’s annual privacy pilgrimage to the Computers, Freedom & Privacy conference or CFP, as its devotees better know it.

There are few more serious havens than CFP for crypto-nauts and data-freaks and a brief glance at this year’s speakers, who include the brains behind Amazon’s search and the policy guru behind Google’s e-mail adventures, is enough to get your brain cells working overtime. CFP holds a special place in my heart, and not just because in 1999 I was tasked with accepting on behalf of Microsoft, Privacy International’s Annual “Big Brother Award”, but because if you want to know all about data - it’s uses and abuses - then you’ll get no better versions of the good, the bad and the ugly than the sessions and hallways at CFP. CFP is a real leveler, where although the attendees may dress differently, the language of data binds them all together and hackers happily rub shoulders with the FBI.

If like Scott McNeally you’ve already come to the conclusion that none of this remotely bothers you, or you think we’re better off leaving these debates to the conspiracy theorists and policymakers then you probably stopped reading some time ago. But if even a little bit of you wonders whether we should actually be taking this seriously, or if you’ve ever used e-mail, Googled, made an online purchase or considered making a free Internet phone call, then there could not be a better time to join the debate.

The privacy and data protection implications of widespread and networked services are enormous and bring up the most fundamental issue: who do you trust to manage your private space? Traditionally, as part of the social contract we make in civil society, we have given this role to government. But now private space can be managed by private companies and at increasingly low-cost as the prices of storage, computation and global-connectivity plummet. Isn’t this now too personal to just say, “get over it"?

At CFP this year, like every year, the key issue will come down to whether we trust anyone enough to be our big brother. Would you prefer your government, a CEO or Google’s computers to determine your access to information, ability to communicate freely and the protection you can expect, when you leave an ever-expanding digital trail as you skate happily through private and public space?

The people from law enforcement and the corporate worlds will say – as ever – that it’s all part of the social contract and if you want to play, you have to pay. That’s pay with your freedom of expression or your freedom to withhold personal information. Serious issues to ponder when you consider that by 2010, you may well be carrying as many as ten RFID tags, with the capacity to wirelessly transmit information, harmlessly allowing you to pass through the barriers at a train station, while pinpointing your location to a prying eye.

Sounds like a nightmare reserved for the science fiction judgments of Minority Report. But as we use the Internet for more and more of our daily life, we have an absolute need (and in many countries a right) to understand what and who is managing our information. We also need to understand and perhaps reconsider what we perceive to be private and public space - legally, technically and emotionally.

Today, with over 600m people using the apparently private spaces of search and e-mail, Google’s entry into e-mail has asked us all an amazingly interesting new question. Is it ok for your Big Brother to be a machine? According to Google – yes - as long as that machine obeys the company’s golden rule: don’t be evil.