Privacy scholars at the wall

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I went to a lecture last night put on by one of the Meetup groups I belong to. My family and friends think the group is some kind of subversive cult, which is an indication that I may need new friends--not much I can do about my family.

One of the more interesting topics discussed was where we would be if, for example, the library at Alexandria had remained the Hadoop of its time (my description, not the lecturer's) and the knowledge within not lost during the Roman conquest back in 30 BCE. Would the Dark Ages have even happened? The bottom line is that we will never know for sure, but it is safe to say, since our current knowledge base has been accumulative over the ensuing centuries (and before) that we may have grown much wiser, much quicker had we not lost the original big data source.

Actually, the blame for the loss of this great store of intellectual treasures has since been spread widely and sounds like the beginning of a joke: A Roman, a Christian and a Muslim walk into a library ... However, it was no joke, and that loss is probably what drives us in part today to save every scrap of data generated by even the shallowest of people in redundant databases all over the world.

Another interesting tidbit relevant to our big data world came from the 30 minutes of kibitzing after the lecture. Since I had been remiss in attending non-virtual meetings for a while, I met many new people. It is amazing how many people work in IT, particularly in data centers, and are on a first name basis with virtualization, cloud infrastructure, etc. But I was fascinated by the response I got when I brought up the concept of big data. The first reaction by three out of four IT people was: Oh man, talk about privacy issues!

Really? First thing?

I guess it's good then that so many others, especially those with influence, are also concerned about privacy. Take the Harvard Law Symposium last week on Privacy and Technology, covered in depth on FierceGovernmentIT by David Perera. The symposium focused on "the future of privacy law in an age in which rapid cultural and social transformation is precipitated by the bewilderingly rapid pace of technological advance." Topics included surveillance and free speech, but also a good dose of big data.

Tuesday's FierceBigData newsletter contained an article referencing a paper called "A Positive Theory of Privacy", by Lior Jacob Strahilevitz, a professor at The University of Chicago. It included a section on big data's influence on consumer privacy, in which Strahilevitz said that many privacy advocates delude themselves into believing that all consumers and voters win when privacy is enhanced, while at the same time, privacy skeptics score cheap rhetorical points by suggesting that only those with shameful secrets to hide benefit from privacy protections.

Another group, the Future of Privacy Forum, released three weeks ago its list of top 2012 Privacy Papers for Policy Makers, which it then featured at an event last week at the Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) Innovation and Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Some of the leading papers were:

  • Smart, Useful, Scary, Creepy: Perceptions of Online Behavioral Advertising, by Blase Ur, Pedro Giovanni Leon, Lorrie Faith Cranor, Richard Shay and Yang Wang
  • 'Going Dark' Versus a 'Golden Age of Surveillance', by Peter Swire and Kenesa Ahmad
  • How Come I'm Allowing Strangers to go Through My Phone? Smart Phones and Privacy Expectations, by Jennifer King
  • Will Johnny Facebook Get a Job? An Experiment in Hiring Discrimination via Online Social Networks, by Alessandro Acquisti and Christina Fong

These papers and others can be found here.

It is great that such thoughtful minds are giving such thorough attention to our privacy, but it makes you wonder how much the average person who freely gives up personal data on a daily basis knows or cares about the privacy implications or appreciates that there are people out there fighting for them every day.

But I suspect, as Jack Nicholson's Colonel Jessup from "A Few Good Men" would say, we are all happy to rise and sleep under the blanket of the very freedom they provide and deep down, in places we don't talk about at parties, we want them on that wall. We need them on that wall. - Tim