In the physical world we know what privacy is and how it works.
We know it because we have developed privacy technologies and norms for thousands of years. Doors and windows are privacy technologies. So is clothing. So are manners respecting the intentions behind others’ use of those things. Those manners are personal, and social. They are how we clothe, shelter and conduct ourselves — and respect how others do the same.
The Internet is a new virtual world we also inhabit. In the form we know it today, it was born with the first graphical browsers, the first ISPs, email and other handy graces.
In many ways it was a paradise. But, as with Eden, we arrived naked there — and we still are, except for the homes and clothing we get from companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. Also from governments and other entities that tell us what our names are and limit what we can do.
What those entities give us is as modern as the middle ages. We toil and prosper inside the walls of their castles, and on their company lands. In many ways, this isn’t bad. But it isn’t ours.
To have true privacy in the networked world, we should be in charge of our own lives, our own identities, our own data, our own things, in our own ways.
We should be able to control what we disclose, to whom, and on what terms.
We should be able to keep personal data as secret and secure as we like.
We should be able to share that data with others in faith that only those others can see and use it.
Our digital identities should be sovereign — ours alone — and disclosed to others at our discretion.
(True: administrative identifiers are requirements of civilization, but they are not who we are, and we all know that.
Think of how identity works in the physical world: why governments and credit cards call me David while family members call me Dave and the rest of the world calls me Doc.
In the physical world we are not constantly advertising our identity. Nor is every entity we encounter interested in burdening themselves with knowing our names. It is enough to recognize each other as human beings, and learn people’s names when they tell us. Up to that point we remain for each other literally anonymous: nameless. This is a civic and social grace we hardly cared about until it was stripped from us online.
In the physical world, companies don’t plant tracking beacons on people, or follow them around to see who who are and what they do — unless they’ve been led by big-data-at-all-costs advisors to copy the bad manners of an online world that has the manners of a toddler.
Bad manners by companies spying on us online won’t change as long as we don’t control means of disclosing our selves, including data that is clearly ours. Until we have true privacy — privacy that we define and control for ourselves — all we’ll have are:
- Crude prophylaxis, such as tracking and advertising blockers
- Talk about which companies screw us the least
- Talk about how governments screw us too
- Calls for laws and regulations that protect yesterday from last Thursday
We won’t get true privacy — the kind we’ve know and understood offline since forever — until we have the online equivalents of the clothing, doors and manners we have long established in the physical world.
If we expect big companies or governments to give it to us, we’re barking up the wrong tree.
I’m hoping we’ll get it from the Barney Pressmans of the online world. Here’s a classic ad for Barney’s (his clothing store) that ran in the 1960s: http://youtu.be/KMIgu9-zd8M. (Just watch the first one, which ends :47 seconds in.) That’s where my headline came from.