Privacy and Paper Walls

Every time I get on a plane, I find myself wondering if the crew feels the same about the aircraft I’m in as I do about computers. Does the pilot mutter, “If only they knew…” under his breath after the in-flight announcement? Does the technician who handles the pre-flight checklist give the thumbs up while saying a silent prayer?

Happily, the answer is no. If planes worked the way computers do, nobody would ever fly again.

This news comes as no surprise to most people. Most, if not all, of us have had a computer crash, a virus infection, some greater or lesser affliction that makes us wonder if computers are a blessing or a curse.

Most everyone who’s used a computer has had some kind of drama with it at some point. Why then do we continue to use them as we do? Questions like this sometimes drive IT professionals to despair (or at least to an extra shell or two of kava on a Friday). Viewed from the perspective of someone aware of the intricate series of events that follows every mouse click, it really is astounding that people continue blithely treating their PCs like their bank, their best friend, their lover, their confessor and their job.

The problem is that people watch for danger in the wrong places. It’s quite common to see people take steps to hide their screen from prying eyes. On more than one occasion people have shown real reluctance to change their password with yours truly standing over their shoulder. My standard response to that reflex is to say, ‘Don’t worry, I don’t need to know your password to see your data.’

The danger of people prying into your data is real. But it’s not your office mates you need to worry about. It’s the people you share your computer with.

No, those last two statements are not contradictory. To make sense of that statement, though, we need to understand something about how the Internet works. Computers store bits and bobs of data, and in order that this information can be shared, they do so in a predictable way. Information has more value when it’s shared, so it makes sense for computers to make that process easier.

Just about every Internet-based service is predicated on sharing information as simply and easily as possible. In fact, the whole premise of the Internet is that data is passed cooperatively over our networks. This should make intuitive sense to anyone raised in the village here in Vanuatu. For the most part, everyone knows where everyone else is at any given moment, and what they’re doing. Knowledge-sharing is so ingrained in Vanuatu society that ‘Yu go wea?’ is the standard greeting.

There are some kinds of information, of course, that we don’t want to share, whether we’re in the village or in a corporate office. Bislama has a wonderfully evolved level of euphemism that – in this writer’s opinion, anyway – is designed to address exactly this issue. It’s possible to go through the motions of quenching others’ curiousity without actually giving anything away. Likewise, many of the things that one hears or sees in the village are simply not acknowledged in public. For better or for worse, what happens inside a household is often not fit for open discussion.

In the past, most Japanese houses were made of wood and featured sliding doors made mostly of paper. They were useless, of course, for blocking noise or preventing willful intrusion, but they were extremely effective at establishing a distinction between public and private space. A couple in a crowded household might have a furious argument, for example, but if the fusuma, or sliding door, is closed, then as far as anyone in the adjoining room is concerned, the quarrel hasn’t happened.

It’s hard to imagine how one could possibly ignore something so obvious, but consider the social transaction involved: If you agree to ignore what happens on the other side of the door, I will agree to do the same. Now consider the number of potentially embarrassing noises that could emanate between these spaces, and you’ll begin to appreciate just how useful such an agreement would be.

The Internet has such paper doors. But the problem is that we haven’t learned to use them properly. Some businesses build profiles of people’s online habits, rationalising publicly that they’ll be respectful of the fact that they can see virtually everything one does online.

Often enough, we learn the dangers of Too Much Information the hard way. One couple received an education in the perils of data sharing when they announced their engagement on Facebook, one of the world’s most popular social networks. They quickly realised that far more people had access to that information than they intended when the bride-to-be was inundated with marriage-related advertising.

Their situation went from bad to worse when they tried to undo the damage. No sooner had they reset their personal status to ‘single’ then all of their Facebook friends received an update telling them that the pair were no longer engaged!

This may seem amusing, but consider another example: Facebook recently announced that they would start providing a service that allowed people to share their shopping and web browsing preferences with all their friends. The plan backfired terribly when Facebook decided to pass on information about its users’ activities when they were outside of the bounds of the social network, too. Imagine using Amazon to buy a book about living with HIV/AIDS for a friend, only to discover that all of your Facebook friends have been told about it. Facebook has since backed off this scheme in the face of countless outraged users.

But businesses aren’t the only ones nosing around in your data. Some governments have assumed that it’s okay to watch every single thing that happens on the Internet just because they can. There is a dearth of legislation anywhere in the world to cover this, and human rights organisations are only now beginning to come to terms with the importance of online privacy.

There are no easy ways to cope with this issue. The fact remains that much of the Internet’s value is predicated on our willingness to share information. Computer security is usually about keeping that same information from prying eyes. So to an extent at least, if we want the Internet to remain useful, we have to make trade-offs where privacy and security are concerned.

The amount of personal information about you will only increase in the future. Your credit rating, your shopping habits, your social circle, your private conversations and personal beliefs, even your sexual preferences – all that information is likely already there for anyone willing to look.

There is no way to put this particular genie back into the bottle. We’ve opened ourselves up and accepted the virtues and benefits of publicly shared information. What we need to do now is develop a moral and ethical map that we can use to establish the limits of acceptable behaviour where this information is concerned.

In order for that to happen, we need to accept a few premises. First, information sharing cannot be a one-way street. Nobody – not the government, not anyone – can reserve the exclusive right to look. Likewise, we need to know what’s visible, and to whom, and most importantly, we need to know who’s looking.

We need to remember what it’s like to live in the village, and think about who might be listening to us. The entire population of the Internet could stand to learn a little Bislama, to stop talking quite so loudly and blithely as they do now. Sometimes it’s downright embarrassing for others.

We also need to decide for ourselves what’s alright to ‘know’ and what’s not. We need to build our own Japanese walls and accept what they represent. We need to respect others’ information as we would their personal space, and we need ours to be respected too.

Posted: February 1st, 2008
Categories: geek, journamalism, soft-core
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