Internet privacy has been in the news a lot lately, mostly thanks to Facebook. Last night I happened upon the lecture by Eben Moglen on that very topic.
It made me realize that my view on the matter was fallacious. Thanks to that lecture and other materials I read last night, my opinion is changing. The moment when you realize you are wrong is a good time to discuss what you have learned, and discuss I now will.
Our privacy is not, as I once thought, restricted to just what pictures Facebook shares and which wall posts our classmates can see. It is not just our financial data. It is not our school records. Our internet privacy is deeper than that. It is our behavior. Everything on the net is logged. And now those logs are being shared. That data can be scraped and recompiled and un-anonymize you, it can be used to profile you, predict you.
There are two prominent examples. First, any Gmail user will tell you that the text ads above your email are relevant to the contents of that email. This is Google’s semantic scan and it makes them a lot of money. Next, is the Project Gaydar study conducted by a group at MIT. They were able to use the publicly viewable information available on Facebook to determine with accuracy who was gay and who was not. This is data-scraping and it can be used to identify you, to shred the cloak of internet-anonymity.
In the case of Google, many of us, myself included, felt safe because it is not people looking at our private information, it is just computer systems sharing the information with each other. But, when you look at Facebook, or when that information is logged and compiled with other other information about you, the situation becomes more uncertain.
But we enjoy Facebook. We like using Gmail and Google’s other services. So we decide to trust the companies that control them with our information because they deliver us convenience and because no one is offering an alternative that doesn’t involve us sacrificing our privacy. We’re throwing away this everyday sort of privacy for a little bit of hosted space on the web and a fancy interface.
This sacrifice is not a necessary component of the architecture of the internet, though. The underlying, peer-to-peer nature of the internet does not require the clients, on our behalf, to return all of our information to the servers, now virtualized in the cloud, with out any control on our end. That is why Facebook’s recent revamps of the privacy controls are not really an answer to anything. We are still vulnerable to having our activity logged by the largest digital social network ever created.
There are alternatives to giving up our information. The Diaspora* project is aiming to create a modular, open, private social network that allows you to share anything and everything without sacrificing your private information. And Marvell’s SheevaPlug is making plug computers an economic choice for everyone that wants an internet presence. Plug computers are simple and therefore versatile:
Technologies like these are available today and make it dead simple to host your own social network node, or even your own full website, including email, or hell, your own Wave. Then our interactions on the web are controlled by us and we don’t have to “trust” any third party company.
So, am I still going to use Facebook and Gmail? Yes, for now. I live there already, that is my cyber neighborhood. I desire a web presence and I have to live with the one I have right now. But, I am going to begin the process of self-hosting, of controlling my own data. And, more importantly, I am going to try to convince others of the implications of not migrating away from non-private networks.
I am very interested in anyone’s and everyone’s opinion. Is it an overreaction? Are we dramatically underreacting? Please visit the links, and if you are interested, Mr. Moglen’s lecture is worth every minute. I hope to connect to everyone’s Diaspora* seeds come summer’s end.