On Friday I attended a Data Privacy Day (a real thing!) panel co-sponsored by HUIT and Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences called “The Intersection of Privacy and Security“. The panelists were noted Harvard technology graybeard Scott Bradner, always interesting professor Salil Vadhan, and SEAS computing directory Steve King.
After some brief introductory remarks by the panelists about balancing privacy and security, the floor was opened. I seized the opportunity to ask about something that has been much on my mind lately: how to make sensible personal choices about data privacy (and security!) in an age of highly-connected devices heavily depending on third-party hosted services.
Or to boil that down a bit more: Let’s say I have a phone, a tablet, and a laptop, a pretty common set of devices these days. And let’s say I use them all constantly. And these devices are tracking what I read and listen to, who I talk to, where I go, what I buy, and every email, chat, and text I send and receive. They are syncing this data between each other and up to an amorphous “cloud” service, where my data is being collated, cross-referenced, sold to marketers, and stored forever.
Given this fact situation, how can I, as an individual, make sensible privacy and security trade-offs, when in order to get the maximal value out of these devices, I must cede control of my data — both the privacy of it and the security of it — to a third-party vendor such as Google or Apple?
A variety of answers were given, none of them entirely comforting. From Bradner, first, came the cynical view — pay in cash, forego loyalty programs, do not use cloud services, and assume everything you store online will be there forever. This is a valid answer, and rock-solid from a data privacy perspective, but I don’t consider it very practical.
His next suggestion was an interesting one, and that was to look for natural alignments — is the corporation I’m entrusting with my data looking out for the same things as I am? His example, backed up by King, was Google’s track-record on fighting invalid data requests from governments and safeguarding customer information. They do this both because that information is valuable to Google, and because customer confidence in Google is also valuable to their bottom line. This raises some interesting and difficult questions — with a company as far-reaching and often secretive as Google, how can we know their actions and track their intentions? For how long will my interests align with Google’s, and when they inevitable stop aligning, how can I erase my digital life from Google’s clutches?
Professor Vadhan I believe was the one to bring up some of the regulatory remedies. Data privacy laws, when well crafted, could help to protect individuals from corporate data misuse, and perhaps even some types of government data misuse. Europe has tried several approaches to this, with mixed success. But such regulation is not on the docket in the United States currently, so that solution doesn’t provide any immediate guidance. And, Professor Vadhan admitted, he clicks through every terms of service notice and privacy agreement without reading it, just as we all do.
In my view, and seemingly that of the panelists, there is no clear path forward at present for this problem. For now we must all work to inform ourselves about risks, balance the trade-offs, and make decisions that we are comfortable with. So maybe I will use the CVS loyalty card, but not link it to a credit card. Or I will use Google’s Gmail service, but not Google+. This is complicated, time-consuming, and frankly difficult — Facebook’s privacy settings, for instance, shift frequently in unexpected ways, often without notice. Opting out of online services’ choices about how to use our personal data is becoming more and more difficult — perhaps because they see it as their data.
With no easy answers on individual data privacy, we can only muddle on as we have been doing, and hope for clearer, easier choices in the future. Meanwhile, the data we share ends up in unexpected places. The only silver lining, in my view, is that I’m not convinced that putting something on the internet does necessarily mean it will be there “forever”. The internet does seem to forget, or, if not forget, at least the constant deluge of new data seems to moderate and bury the old, in ways that can only be good for our lasting well being.