Saturday, July 5, 2014

Privacy? What Privacy?

"You have zero privacy.  Get used to it."

Scott McNealy, the founder of Sun Microsystems, famously said this in 1999.

Ten years later, Google CEO Eric Schmidt made a more detailed comment:

"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.  If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines -- including Google -- do retain this information for some time and it's important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities."

Then we had Edward Snowden, who proved that McNealy and Schmidt were telling the truth all those years ago.

Suddenly we were all upset.


Recently it was revealed that Facebook has been making its customers available for psychological experiments on their reactions following placement of downbeat news reports on Facebook feeds.  Naturally the Facebook customers were not asked if they wished to participate in these experiments.  This, of course, is because all them would have said no.


Privacy became a concern of mine last year when I decided to set up a new Google password, one of those long ones with numbers, letters and capital letters.

My password was the month, day and year that someone who had been dear to me died.  It was something that I could remember but that had no footprint on any computer file, anywhere.

A couple weeks later, when I was filling out a form on line, a prompt asked for my birthday.  Before I could write "none of your darn business," Google helpfully popped up with a suggestion that I post the the date in my password.

Google's data analytics had deduced that my password was a date and then proceeded to pass it around. I couldn't even count on Google to keep my PASSWORD to itself.

It's enough to make a person want to throw her computer out the window and conduct all future transactions in cash.  But then what do you do with your phone?

We're stuck.

Jared Lanier

Jared Lanier, a computer scientist and musician, has been musing about this in two thoughtful books, You Are Not a Gadget (2011) and Who Owns the Future (2013.)  One of his proposals is that Google, Facebook and other outfits that assemble online information into products should pay the consumers whose data they mine to make their billions.

He seems to be a thoughtful guy.  His books are on my list.

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