Tuesday, September 30, 2008

“Radical Pragmatism” : Privacy by design

Privacy protection must be built into new technologies right from inception, according to Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner, Ann Cavoukian.

In a paper she delivered yesterday at the University of Waterloo, entitled “Privacy and Radical Pragmatism: Change the Paradigm “, Cavoukian argues that enhancing surveillance and security in society does not need to be at the expense of privacy. Instead, Cavoukian advocates that "privacy-enhancing technologies" can be used to counter privacy-invading tools such as biometrics, RFID (radio-frequency identification tags) and video surveillance:

By adopting a positive-sum paradigm and applying a privacy-enhancing technology to an otherwise surveillance technology, you can develop, what I am now calling, a “Transformative Technology” – transformative because you can in effect, transform the privacy-invasive features of a given technology into privacy-protective ones. Among other things, transformative technologies can literally transform technologies normally associated with surveillance into ones that are no longer exclusively privacy-invasive in nature.

In an interview with IT World, David Fewer from CIPPIC says that a lot of work still needs to be done to get the private sector on-board:

Privacy enhancing technologies are often viewed as a cost by major corporations. It will likely be the role of statutes such as PIPEDA (Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act) and other … privacy laws to push companies toward investing in these privacy-enhancing technologies.

“As of now, industries will only be forced to do it when faced with an obligation to do so by regulators or when they make some kind of mistake in the marketplace and are forced to implement these technologies by some kind of legal action,” Fewer said.”

Image by Kevin Dooley

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tasteless Twittering: Newspaper tweets details of child’s funeral

The decision by the Rocky Mountain News to broadcast continuous, live updates to Twitter of the details of the funeral of a three-year old boy has caused a storm of controversy among ethicists, journalists and bloggers.

Twitter, for the uninitiated, is a social networking service that uses instant messaging to allow users to share information about what they are doing at any given moment. Updates, known as “tweets” are displayed on the sender’s page and automatically sent to subscribers.

Most Twitter users share the mundane details of everyday life, answering the question “What are you doing now?” Lisa Reichelt, on her disambiguity blog, refers to this as “ambient intimacy”:

Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. … There are a lot of us, though, who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like.

One benefit of twittering is that updates can be made frequently, facilitating uses such as marketing, micro-blogging, networking and breaking news. You can track Barack Obama on the campaign trail, follow TechCrunch’s blog updates, stay up-to-date with NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander or catch breaking news from the CBC. Twitter has also been used to share the blow-by-blow account of a couple’s argument or even to offer a proposal of marriage.

Given the broad spectrum of information that can be shared via Twitter, what then, is the etiquette? What is appropriate twittering and what is taboo? In the case of the funeral for three year-old car crash victim Marten Kudlis, many believe the good taste envelope was pushed to the limit. Reporter Berny Morsen’s play-by-play of the toddler’s funeral seemed voyeuristic and lacking in the reverence one would expect from newspaper coverage of such an event.

While shocking, it is simply a more extreme example of how the use of technologies such as Twitter is blurring the line between what is public and what should be private.

20th century etiquette expert Emily Post noted that: “People who talk too easily are apt to talk too much, and at times imprudently”. The need to feed Twitter followers with a steady stream of updates, coupled with the immediacy of the technology, encourages users to post before thinking.

Margaret Mason, contributor for The Morning News, perhaps says it best: “What’s rude in life is rude on Twitter.”

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Google Responds to Privacy Concerns with Chrome

Google plans to anonymize the IP addresses and cookies that track users when they enter search terms or URLs into Google’s new browser, Chrome.

Privacy advocates have been concerned about the potential of the browser to allow Google even more ability to track users’ online habits and develop extensive user profiles.

Electronic Frontier Foundation technologist Peter Eckersley says: “We're worried that Chrome will be another giant conveyer belt moving private information about our use of the Web into Google's data vaults. Google already knows far too much about what everybody is thinking at any given moment."

Google also plans to anonymize user IP addresses nine months after they have been collected.

Regulators and policymakers have been scrutinizing Google’s privacy practices for the past year, and this seems to be yet another example of the company’s lack of attention to privacy and failure to fully disclose how data will be used.

Image by Randy Zhang