The Big Data Fight and What We Can Learn from Adam, Eve and Aldous Huxley

In the privacy world, we often hear the argument that, in order for the information economy to thrive, personal privacy must be leveraged—that there must be tradeoffs. In a recent blog post on the supposed death of privacy, I quoted a Harvard professor from 1970 as saying that a world with complete privacy is a utopian concept.

Enter Carnegie Mellon University researcher Alessandro Acquisti. This week, the well-known TED Talk series released a presentation by Acquisti from earlier this summer on “Why Privacy Matters”—and he kicked it off with the story of Adam and Eve, the original residents of the original utopia, and “their notorious privacy incident”:

“Privacy is both a means and the price to pay for freedom,” Acquisti says. “Marketers tell us that Big Data and social media are not just a source of profit for them, it’s a Garden of Eden for us.” We, as consumers, get free content and personalized advertising.

Talk about utopia!

As Acquisti points out, though, the Garden of Eden as a utopia is a place where self-awareness and adventure don’t exist. When Adam and Eve eat the apple, they become self-aware and must leave that utopia.

Similarly, when consumers become self-aware, when they understand the trade-off in privacy they’re making for this Garden of Free Services Eden, the leaves kind of start falling off the trees and utopia doesn’t look quite so verdant.

Maybe that’s alright, though. In Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World, the Savage rejects a society bent on control and comfort, and famously says, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“Alright then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

Similarly, as long as consumers understand the choices they’re making, they can happily choose to not be private. They can take risks. They can sin and be adventurous.

Which leaves us with transparency, which has been a giant and complex concept for businesses and privacy pros. The challenges for businesses to share their data collection practices while staying legally protected are well known. Finding ways of conveying those practices through short-form notices via mobile devices has been one of the latest challenges. As I reported today, Acxiom opened up a public-facing portal for consumers to see what data the company has collected about them. However, there are serious security and identity theft concerns there.

In principle, transparency is a “very good thing,” Acquisti says. But, he notes, our current attempts at transparency are ineffective for dealing with the latest Big Data innovations—whether predictive analytics or the prospect of friend-composite advertising.

“It’s like bringing a knife to a gunfight,” he said of current policies.

But not everything is gloomy. There are alternatives, he points out, and I agree.

Acquisti continues, “When someone tells you privacy is incompatible with the benefits of Big Data, consider that in the last 20 years researchers have created technologies to allow virtually any electronic transactions to take place in a more privacy-preserving manner. We can browse the internet anonymously (Tor), we can send emails that can only be read by the intended recipient (Pretty Good Privacy), can even have privacy-preserving data mining. In other words, we can have the benefits of big data while protecting privacy. These technologies imply a shift of cost and revenues from data holders and data subjects, which is probably why you don’t hear more about them.”

But we are hearing about them. Just this week, Financial Times reported that profits in the privacy-enhancing technology industry are on the rapid rise. Prompted by the NSA disclosures, not only are individuals vying for encrypted protection, but businesses and governments as well. In a sort of ironic twist, the Summer of Snowden has helped change the perception of encryption from something suspicious to something necessary. As Silent Circle CEO Mike Janke has said, “Ten years ago, if you had encryption on a device, people asked what you were hiding. Now if you’re a businessperson and you don’t have it, people ask if you’re stupid.” And on top of this, venture capital is being invested in privacy-enhancing startups, as is evidenced by the $4.5 million raised by digital data vault startup Personal.

There will continue to be masses of consumers who will feel more comfortable in (or remain oblivious to) that perceived paradise—and businesses will continue to improve their data collection and behavioral targeting practices to harvest such valuable data.

But, with the NSA disclosures, and an entire region (the EU), more aware than ever about the fickleness of their privacy online, businesses that can foster the trust of these more savvy consumers looking to escape the Garden may thrive.

Written By

Jedidiah Bracy, CIPP/E, CIPP/US


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