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Privacy: Dead or Alive?

I had the great pleasure of chatting to Robert Scoble at SASCon last week, and found that we held equally strong, but different, views about the future of privacy.

In Scoble’s view, privacy is dead. Services like Google and Facebook have demonstrated that we are more than happy to give up personal data in return for a service that we value.

I can’t disagree with this. But I don’t think things will always be this way. Privacy can be resurrected, and I believe that a number of drivers mean it will be.

It’s important first to define the specific type of privacy we were discussing. It might better be described as a debate about personal data: who owns it, who can monetise it, and how it is traded.

Right now we give our personal data over to large entities who store that data and broker access to it to other people for whom it has value: usually advertisers. The enormous value and profits of these companies — e.g. Facebook and Google — are based on an imbalance in this transaction: they make much more money from selling our data than they spend on maintaining the service that we trade for it.

You can argue that the data is only valuable when it is held at scale: no advertiser is going to broker with each of us individually for the right to advertise to us. By contrast, a brand’s interactions with Google and Facebook allow them to reach thousands or even millions of people with a few clicks.

I argue that this is an engineering problem. If you can allow brands to negotiate with millions of individuals without storing their data in a central location, then there’s no need for the ownership of our data to change hands in the first place.

This is good for many reasons. We might get a greater share of the rewards. And our data is likely to be more secure. Storing our data in centralised repositories makes it worthwhile for hackers to try to steal it. The friction of stealing data from each of us individually may be much to high to justify the reward.

For these reasons I think that our privacy — or rather our control of our own personal data — can be restored. The genii can be returned to the bottle. Because it makes social sense to do so, it makes commercial sense to do so, and because it protects our security if we do so.

Right now we don’t have the tools to do this: there is nothing out there that can broker personal data on a case-by-case basis. There isn’t the understanding, nor the appetite, in the general public. People might gripe about some of the more egregious behaviours of the data-holders, but for the most part we don’t stop using their services.

But our tastes are fickle. I hold to my view that no network or service online has a tight grip on its users: switching behaviours is just too easy now.

It will take time but someone — or perhaps more likely a collection of people and companies — will construct an alternative to the centralised network model that combines the benefits outlined above — including direct financial reward for sharing our personal data — with a great user experience.

And in the process, they will resurrect our privacy.

 

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Tom Cheesewright