You are here

Extreme Publicacy -- Does Privacy Stand a Chance? -- Growing Privacy-Publicacy Faultline Part III

We now have a glimpse of what extreme publicacy looks like from the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who leads the World Wide Web Consortium which oversees the web's standards and development.

  • Remember, "publicacy" -- is a new word to describe the opposite of privacy, and to capture the increasingly-common view in the tech community, that if technology can make information more public -- it should be made more public.

Per Gordon Crovitz' WSJ column today we learned more about the future of extreme "publicacy" on the Internet:

  • "Mr. Berners-Lee now advocates what he calls "linked data," to go beyond today's hypertext and make readily accessible digital information stored in any format from any source. There's a huge amount of data now in various digital formats, but it's hard to find new relationships or correlations. He said the Web could be reorganized so that well-tagged tables of structured information can easily be linked to others. For example, scientists could link data about proteins and genomics to tackle Alzheimer's. Mr. Berners-Lee led the TED crowd in a chant of "Raw data, now!""

  • "Asked about the benefits of what's called the semantic Web, compared with today's less sophisticated Web, Mr. Berners-Lee told me "It's . . . as hard to explain as my original idea for the Web." The raw-data revolution would be "a paradigm shift as important as the Web was at its time. . . . imagine if you could access all the data from previously unconnected sources and ask any question of the data that you like." People in different disciplines could access the same information from different vantage points. "We'd quickly find new relationships among data and new answers to problems in ways we haven't been able to imagine.""

Count me as one who is excited about the many positive advances and connecting of dots that the semantic web could create.

  • ...But also count me as a concerned-realist that these most ambitious of publicacy proponents, care little about the privacy implications of enabling the linking of all this currently un-linked information.
    • That's because the people driving the semantic web are overwhelmingly publicacy technologists who share an overriding publicacy bias that most everything currently private should be made public.

My big question is will there be privacy voices in the development of these new semantic web standards that could foresee and safeguard against some of the most logical, scary and obvious abuses?

  • Without privacy concerns built into the process, it is increasingly obvious that this will turn out badly for those who care about privacy.

I. Potential privacy abuse scenario around health information:

Lets say that every medical database of people's medical tests and genetic profiles could be linked, it would undoubtedly enable scientific and treatment breakthroughs, but it also undoubtedly could be abused. 

  • The same sophisticated data mining and link analyses approach to cure diseases also could be used to reverse engineer and identify those people who have different maladies so that life/health insurance companies could know exactly which person, family, neighborhood, sub-ethnicity, lifestyle, x-profile would cost the company the most money at what point in time -- so the company could secretly, and proactively mitigate its losses by only accepting patients and/or terms that its increasingly accurate algorithms see as profitable. 
    • Ultimately armed with these new "public" medical data linkages, certain groups could become health vigilantes picking on health/behavior-vulnerable people, groups, or individuals -- that they don't want agree with or don't want to support as part of an insurance pool.
    • This newly discovered kind of "public" data could easily create health profiling and "health classes" of people -- i.e. the health-rich, the soon-to-become-very-sick, the health-poor etc.   
    • It is naive to think these current treasure troves of private information would not or could not be abused by publicacy models or groups -- just as there is potential for these data to be used for great social good.
      • Common sense tells us that the more previously-private information is made public, without proactive privacy safeguards, the more vulnerable people will unwittingly become to publicacy abuses. 
    • Given that the business model fueling most of the publicacy effort today is increasingly targeted/behavioral advertising, (which has a very checkered privacy record to date,) it is likely that privacy concerns will take a back seat to publicacy in the development of the semantic web.


II. Potential cloud computing privacy abuse scenario around personal information:

The most obvious example to consider here is Google, who is a leader in the paradigm shift towards cloud computing. Lets look at the potential semantic/publicacy databases that Google could soon "semantically" link in the cloud.

  • First, it is well known that Google's computers read Gmail users' emails, but it is less well-known that Google also reads and stores the emails of the unwitting people who happen to send private emails to Gmail users. 
  • Second, it is even less well known that Google can read and search the content people produce using Google's free software applications like docs, spreadsheets, and other apps.
  • Third, Google records all your search history, tracks your clicksteams accross the web, and tracks what you watch on YouTube. 
  • Fourth, with Cloud computing they will be able to store  and search the private information that currently resides on one's computer hard-drive.

Contemplate the Big Brother/J. Edgar Hoover privacy implications of just this "semantic" cloud.

  • By cross-linking the databases of search, email, word processing, clickstreams, and video watching, Google could sell, provide or be compelled by subpoena to provide a profile of an individual or a political group, and/or to provide a Google-Trends-like analysis about what a group of people are thinking or doing on a particular topic at any point in time. 
    • Even George Orwell in his classic "1984" did not foresee this potential level of "Big Brother" sophistication. 

Moreover, this cross-linked publicacy analysis of multiple previously-unlinked private databases could offer Google itself, a political party, or the Federal Government unprecedented insights into previously private citizen/voter behavior and patterns.

  • Information is power and power corrupts... 

Bottom line: 

The technological trend and bias towards publicacy is not only rapidly eroding people's expectations of privacy, but also their actual privacy -- without their informed authorization or consent.

The big takeaway here is that if current publicacy advocates, goals, and practices drive Web 2.0 and the move towards cloud computing and the semantic web, and if privacy interests are not integrally involved in the development of web standards and processes -- we are begging for big trouble.

  • The technological capacity and ease to do individuals and groups most serious harm is growing at a frightening rate.    

What's needed is much more open acknowledgement of the growing privacy-publicacy faultline, so that privacy and publicacy concerns can be better balanced on the Web going forward.

Part I

Part II