If you’re a privacy professional, you’ve likely seen a dramatic change in the last few years. What was once a fairly niche issue—privacy—has become downright mainstream. We're not just talking about it manifesting in Obama's State of the Union Address, we're talking it manifesting in comedy, the arts and sciences.
With the Super Bowl set for Sunday, satirical newspaper The Onion reported on remarks made by the normally tight-lipped star running back for the Seattle Seahawks. Marshawn Lynch, it reported, "delivered an incredibly thoughtful and eloquent 45-minute address on the topic of privacy in the 21st century."
And his speech would be ripe for the pages of any top academic journal:
Of course, 45 minutes was not nearly enough time to truly delve into the finer nuances of privacy in the Digital Age, so we'll have to imagine what this Marshawn Lynch would pontificate, or hope The Onion delves into Rob Gronkowski's theories of cryptography and cybersecurity.
But that wasn't all for privacy humor this week.
On Tuesday, NBC aired back-to-back episodes of the popular sitcom Parks & Recreation. They’re worth watching, but for time’s sake, here’s the quick run-down (spoiler alert). The small, every-town of Pawnee has a new data-mining startup called Gryzzl. As The Washington Post’s Andrea Peterson describes it, this “comically exaggerated Frankenstein of the Facebooks, Googles and Amazons of the world” gets on the town’s good side by offering free services and eventually delivers “hyper-personalized gifts” via drone delivery, all chosen “based on algorithms that search through the contents of their private text messages and emails.”
Of course citizens of Pawnee are outraged that the company took such liberties with their privacy, but are then surprised to find out that much of what Gryzzl did was perfectly legal in the U.S. In fact, buried deep within Gryzzl’s user agreement, users unknowingly consented to these uses. Sound familiar?
Ben speaks for the town, and perhaps all of us, when he lambasts Gryzzl:
Like the president’s stumping for privacy legislation, the fact that one of NBC’s top shows has spent a series of episodes to highlight issues around privacy is a welcome development. As a side note and for a quick laugh, here's Parks and Recreation's resident libertarian and curmudgeon Ron Swanson learning about cookies and online tracking.
Seeing privacy make its way into mainstream comedy is telling as we all have to be in on it for the joke to be funny. Who knows, maybe we'll eventually see an Adventures-in-Babysitting-style teen spoof where the babysitter is a smart home or robot.
But privacy isn't just making its way into mainstream comedy either. We're now seeing it in the arts and sciences, too.
Earlier this month Laura Poitras’ excellent documentary Citizenfour was nominated for best documentary at the Oscars. For those unfamiliar with the flick, Poitras filmed former NSA contractor Edward Snowden changing the course of the history of privacy and surveillance. If you haven’t seen it, and are coming to the IAPP Global Privacy Summit, we’ll be screening it. Plus, we’ll feature a keynote from journalist Glenn Greenwald—both are must-see events.
In addition to politics and entertainment, Science has dedicated an entire special issue to what it calls “the end of privacy.” It’s impressive and chock full of some of the most important and pressing issues involving technology and privacy. The New York Times featured the research of Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye and his team on the ease of reidentification. Science also delves into facial and voice recognition, medical research ethics, various privacy-enhancing technologies to counter tracking, public health versus privacy, hackable pacemakers, the right to be forgotten, human behavior and privacy and, course, a quiz on your privacy IQ.
In their introduction, Martin Enserink and Gilbert Chin discuss how the troves of data created every day also create new dilemmas. Scientists face ethical challenges as they balance innovative research with respect for privacy. Additionally, “how we think and feel about privacy isn’t static … our preferences about what we want to keep private can change depending on the context, the moment or how we’re nudged.”
Ominously, they conclude, “Privacy as we have known it is ending, and we're only beginning to fathom the consequences.” I’ve discussed the “death” of privacy on this blog – and really, we’re not looking at its last mortal moments, but we are at a critical point with privacy. Indeed it’s in the mainstream, but that’s because it’s being compromised and challenged at virtually every junction.
This is huge for privacy pros. The public is becoming more aware of privacy issues, whether through comedy, the arts or sciences.
That knowledge may play into which products and services consumers purchase, or what Saturday Night Live writers choose to make fun of. Plus, Congress may well act on some of President Obama’s privacy and cybersecurity initiatives—to some degree at least. Privacy pros will play a huge part in fathoming the consequences, and ensuring, that no, privacy won’t go the way of the Dodo, it’ll grow with the times.
And that's something, I think, the fake Marshawn Lynch could get behind.
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