Schneier on Privacy in the Age of Big Data

“I hear a lot about the death of privacy. And honestly, I hear it a lot by CEOs.[…] I really think the death of privacy is being talked about by the people who want to kill it.”

While I don’t agree with all of his writing, this speech is nearer the mark than usual.

The point about CEOs driving the ‘Death of Privacy’ dialogue is a particularly interesting one:

a) it’s something to think about next time someone proclaims the “death” of anything that isn’t yet dead, and

b) Consider the personalities. I’m starting to suspect the myth that power over others is in and of itself desirable exists to get sociopaths doing something useful for the rest of us.

By way of summary, some more quotes:

“Remember, you are not Google’s customers. You are Google’s product they sell to their customers.”

“People care a lot about privacy [but] Facebook is in the deliberate business of making sure you don’t think about privacy when you’re there.”

“[D]ata is the pollution problem of the information age. [… And we are building tools so our children [can] build the future. [Just as] we look back at the kinds of industry from 100 years ago and wonder in amazement how they could completely ignore pollution and they rushed to build the industrial age, we also are going to be judged by our great grandchildren on what we did to deal with this data in a rush to build the information age.”

If you care about the future, you have to understand the past. All too often I see people (especially in computer security) pretending history doesn’t exist, and using science fiction in its place. This goes a little beyond “learn from history or repeat it” — in the past we see lessons on human nature and the way things work that let us avoid entirely new pitfalls.

“Everything we do that uses a computer creates a transaction record. When you pick up your cell phone, there’s a record of the call you made, there’s a record that I’m hearing the ringtone, there’s a record of my SMS messages, right? That’s all on the phone. Browsing the Internet creates records, and my ISP knows where I’m going. Google knows more about what I’m interested in than my wife does. And it’s true for all of you as well.[…]

what we’re seeing is a sea change in the world of personal data. All this stuff is increasingly stored and increasingly searchable. Data storage drops to free, data processing drops to free, and stuff that even 5 years ago you would throw away, you save. Because the marginal value of saving it only has to be so low. We’ve all hit the point in our e-mail lives, where, while we used to only save the important stuff, we all stopped. Now we save everything. It’s easier to save everything and search it than is to figure out what to throw away. That’s exactly what’s happening in the world large.[…]

In the United States I have very little ownership and control of this. I can’t see a lot of it, I can’t correct a lot of it, I can’t delete any of it. If you go to Europe, things are a little bit better. Actually, in some cases it’s a lot better. You know, elsewhere it’s different. In general, the legal system is not keeping pace with technological improvements. At least, in the U.S. the laws that protect my paper mail don’t apply to e-mail; the laws that protect my phone conversations don’t apply to voice-over-IP. Even the laws that protected my videotape rentals don’t apply to streaming movies on the Internet.[…]

there’s a primary and secondary market for this data: Amazon can use it for their own purposes, and they can sell it to somebody else. And again, that depends on local laws; Amazon is a U.S. company, so they’re going to sell my data to some broker who knows I’m buying a book on Tourism in New Zealand, and now they know I’m going there, so I get offers about hotels.”


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