We have lost the battle for privacy

Bruce Schneier wrote a great essay on the current state of citizen’s privacy of the internet. Please go read it; but if you’re lazy, here’s a one-liner to sum it up: we (the citizens) lost.

So I wonder, what’s next? It’s pointless to keep fighting this battle hoping it will get better. It won’t. We lost our privacy, perhaps because we did not care too much in the first place. Some of us did – the pioneers, the activists, the early advocates and the geeks who enjoyed some decent pornography without having social interactions with the local VHS store guy. It turns out, we did not have an impact big enough in the first place. In the end, we had bills to pay, so we – software programmers – wrote code that tracks users and self-rationalized on why it was good and interesting.¬†Whops.

When I ask myself “what’s next”, I wonder if we can change the reasons behind this hunger for personal data. If we make it useless, corporations will stop looking for it. I know there’s no simple solution to most complex problems – but perhaps, not fighting or changing battlefield is the best solution we have.

A few options, off the top of my head:

  • If the main reason is advertising, could that some day change and reduce some of the tracking agents? For example, taking value away from personal information by making it freely available.
  • How about making everything public – including data about government officers and corporations – by law? Can the citizens unite and push for laws that make everything public and reduce anonymity completely – including for those who check your data? Would you be OK knowing the personal data of the government officer who knows your personal data?
  • Will we reach a state of ‘mutually assured cyber destruction’ – where every time citizen’s data is used by large corporations and governments, the citizens retaliate by making their secrets public, a-la wikileaks?

There are, of course, lots of pros and cons to this mindset: for example, as long as health care is a business, providers will try to save money. Knowing your medical history (because of your online activity) has a value for them, since they can ask for a higher price for your health insurance. Making health care free (as in the rest of the civilized world) solves this problem, but it comes with lots of political and cultural strings attached. And so on.

Yet I think this is the path: making personal information either devoid of any value, or so valuable (e.g. in exchange for everyones’ else personal data) that a surveillance state becomes impractical or just useless. Up until now information was difficult to disseminate; the concept of “state secret” and “national security” made perfect sense. Those who knew more, won wars. Perhaps it’s time to re-think these as well.

We shall see.

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