Can We Really Expect Privacy Controls in a Transparent Society?

Hank Pellissier of IEET recently posted an article entitled “100% Honesty, Transparency, Disclosure – is this the “naked future” we want?” In the article, Pellissier describes the most extreme version of a transparent future: a world where you walk into a party and literally everyone knows everyone else’s thoughts.

It’s a fun article and an interesting thought experiment, but as you read through the text it becomes apparent that Pellissier is not really talking about a transparent future. In fact, his described utopia involves extremely robust privacy protections. The article makes several references to the idea of private and public mind files, implying that as an individual you still get to be the final arbiter of who does and doesn’t have access to your information. At one point he describes the level of sharing that would be necessary in choosing a marriage partner.

“Marriage partner? Private files that are usually off-limits are opened to peruse priorities like “long-term loyalty,” “patience,” interest trends,” and “annoying habits.”

Now this is a speculative world, and I’m not sure how these “mind files” are supposed to work. But a key feature of files is that they are easy to copy. Open your files to someone once, and those files are now out of your control. People can potentially copy and reshare that data at will.

But more importantly, Pellissier ignores how much will be inferable about us from our external behavior. A computer does not need to read your mind to determine your personality traits. If we imagine a world rife with sensors and information sharing, then there will be a wealth of data available on all of us. And you can bet that data will be parse-able in such a way that any “annoying habits” of mine will be able to be determined whether or not I voluntarily open up my private mind files.

At one point, Pellissier describes a discussion with his daughter:

“When I proposed my 100% transparency utopia to my family, my 12-year-old daughter rebelled. “We’d be robbed!” she exclaimed. “Bad guys would know our address and where we hide the key!” No, I explained. Mind-sharing would contain options, with public or private settings for different data, like Facebook. Everyone could be as secretive as they wished.  Shy, paranoid, and mystery-loving people could mingle together, laboriously extracting information from each other in old-fashioned Luddite ways.”

If this were my daughter, my response would have been different. First I would have explained that our address (and quite possibly the location of our key) would already be readily available to anyone interested in doing us harm. For this thought experiment to make any sense, we have to picture a sensor-rich, camera-heavy, highly networked world. In such a future how can you possibly expect to hide the location of the property that you return to every single night? You don’t think any cameras or GPS devices are going to capture you doing so? I’m pretty sure all it takes for a bad guy to find someone’s address now is a little bit of light googling. And that’s today.

Fortunately, I would explain to my daughter, if these bad guys do decide to rob us, their crime will be fully recorded and traceable to them, for the exact same reasons listed above. So most likely the bad guys won’t bother us, given that they face a near certainty of being caught.

It sounds nice to imagine a future with robust privacy settings, where we all can dicate what is and isn’t private. But deep down I really don’t see how that can ever be viable. To achieve this would require a locked down future where we are all running the same operating system. You need a unified system or else you can’t enforce any of these supposed privacy controls. And at the point we have a unified system, we are at the mercy of the programmers and how they decide to handle the inevitable conflicts of interest that will arise.

We can learn a lot by looking at the modern day intellectual property debacle. This chapter from Free Culture describes a documentary filmmaker who accidentally captured a few seconds of The Simpsons playing on a TV in the background of a shot. Fox ended up demanding 10,000 dollars in payment for use of the copyrighted material. In this moment, a simple act of documenting the world somehow crossed over and became infringement.

Now imagine I am in a bar with friends. I glance across the room and happen to witness a gay couple talking and laughing. All I do is glance for a second, but that’s enough time for my glasses to record and store their presence. I am recording the whole night at the bar because it is a special night, my last evening in Los Angeles before a long trip. Later that evening, I upload part of the video so I can share a funny thing someone said to me.

It just so happens that contained within the clip I upload are the faces of this gay couple at the bar. Modern face recognition means their faces can be tied to their real identities. The result: I may have just unintentionally outed these people.

We can think of this video clip as a “mind file.” Who owns it? Do I own it? After all the experience happened to me. But at the same time, the clip contains potentially sensitive information belonging to someone else. Specifically data about their sexual orientation and activities on a given night.

In a truly transparent society, the answer is simple: Tough luck for the gay couple at the bar. They are in a public place; they should not be expecting privacy. Instead of trying to protect their secrecy, we should be evolving as a society to the point where sexual orientation is a non-issue.

But in a privacy-controlled pseudo-transparent society, like the one Pellissier describes, the answer is not so clear. Can the gay couple send me a take down notice? Are all the faces of all the people in the background of my home videos automatically going to be blurred? There is not necessarily an elegant answer.

In this way, truly protecting your privacy may require you having veto power over what other people choose to do with their own recorded memories. Such veto power sounds to me like the biggest privacy invasion of all.

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