Monday, July 27, 2009

Anonymity Is The New Privacy

We don't just live in an information economy - we live in an information society. More and more everyday, I am convinced that the way we gather and act upon data will determine our collective prosperity. The more we know, the sooner we know it, the better the data is - the better decisions we can make.

Here is a prime example of what I'm talking about:

Having all this data at our disposal is very empowering. I think the old adage, "knowledge is power" is absolutely true. However, we also have to remember that "with great power comes great responsibility. Knowledge and power is like any weapon - it can be used for good or for ill. No one wants to live in an Orwellian society, but it appears we are moving in that direction.

For example, consider this recent incident in the UK. The police busted a party because it was tagged as an all-nighter on facebook, and for whatever reason they felt like they should stop it. The funny part is that they intervened via helicopter at 4:00 pm - before the "crime" ever occurred. Sound familiar?

That was just an aside that I found funny, but it does have serious implications. The amount of data stored on each of our personal lives is tremendous, and it will only increase. However, there is a tendency for activists to psychologically separate the positive power of data from the negative power of data. You can't have your cake and eat it too, and you can't have the benefits of power without the risks.

I think this is a broader pattern of our society, possibly of human nature. Skip to 3:22 on this video and you'll see an interesting proof of this point.

But, returning to the point on information and privacy, what are we going to do? We need information in order to create shared prosperity. We can't just regress to the stone age. I think the solution is to think hard about anonymity. With anonymity you share your data but it doesn't identify you as an individual. In contrast, I think privacy means your data isn't shared at all. Of course, there will always be a way to figure out who you are and reveal your anonymity. I think this is where privacy policies come in. We will be thinking more and more about what goes into those legal documents, and I think that segment of the lawyer industry is going to grow a lot over the next decade, when more and more of these issues surface due to advancing technology.

I think the lighthearted reference I made earlier to the movie Minority Report is actually pretty instructive here. We need to think about the moral implications of stopping crimes before they happen, because technology is just going to move further in that direction. I think the best thing we can do is to realize that you can never get something for nothing, and to be cognizant of the risks.


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