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March 26, 2008

Filed under: culture»internet

Keep to Yourself

Let's say that you were in the market for a castle. With housing prices the way they are, why not? Get something with that classic "arrows from the ramparts" feel. In the middle of a prospective castle, depending on its era, you might find a strong defensive tower, which was called a "keep." The keep was both a social location and the last line of protection against siege forces, making it somewhat schizophrenic. This was not entirely unusual, of course--after all, late medieval castles grew to envelope the towns that formed around them.

You see the same thing happen with most fortifications in history, I think. While visiting Xi'An, for example, one of the city's most striking features was the town wall that surrounded the oldest portion, including a keep-like tower near Hui Mingjie. Nowadays, of course, the portion inside the walls is a tiny part of the city--the historical district, in other words.

I bring this up because I think it's a useful metaphor for something that's been bothering me about information security advocates online*. There is, for example, Charlie Stross's reaction to the Kindle when it was first released:

If you buy a Kindle you've got to accept that Amazon's ebook reader is monitoring your usage and transmitting data about you back to the mothership - yes, that's in the terms and conditions. (Look for "Information Received" in the small print.) It's outrageous: what would you say to a librarian who said that your lending rights were contingent on their monitoring precisely what you were reading and how long you were spending on each page? Reading is one of the few activities that we're used to doing in private, alone in the privacy of our own heads. Kindle is making a bare-faced attempt to strip away your privacy.
Indeed, it is in the terms and conditions for the Kindle. But if you read the surrounding print, it's not quite so terrifying as Stross makes it sound.
The Device Software will provide Amazon with data about your Device and its interaction with the Service (such as available memory, up-time, log files and signal strength) and information related to the content on your Device and your use of it (such as automatic bookmarking of the last page read and content deletions from the Device). Annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings you make in your Device are backed up through the Service. Information we receive is subject to the Privacy Notice.
In other words, Amazon keeps an online copy of your bookmarks, notes, and books that you deleted, in case you decide that you want to re-read that title again one day. That's all--it's language to cover the wireless backup service.

You'll never find me advocating that we should trust the market or the big corporations to do right by us. But at some point, if you're going to live in a relatively modern world, you've just got to get used to the idea that your private data is not quite as private as you think it is. You can live in a castle, in other words. But if you want to really profit off those serfs or buy their wares come market time, you're going to have to learn to open up the gates and let some of them in.

(Stross's following argument, I might add, is that even if we assume that Amazon is ethical, reading data is not safe under a government that has no particular problem with the unlimited incarceration of suspicious brown people and a nasty rendition habit. To which I'll concede the point, but also add that the real problem there is not the data--it's the government. If Stross has an issue, his best course of action is political, not economic.)

I sometimes feel like people who rant and rave about privacy have never lived in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. In both cases, of course, there's a level of privacy that any reasonable person should expect: what I do in my own home is my business. But when I leave home, or when I do so digitally and venture out on the Internet, and I choose to interact with people outside of my house, it seems a little over the top to insist that they're not allowed to remember said interaction.

Obviously, people have a right to be upset when this information is used in unethical ways, just as they have a right to be upset when the small-town grocery clerk spreads gossip about their buying habits (or, to point out that this is non-trivial, that clerk is interviewed by a dirt-digging reporter). But you never see the digirati getting all up in arms about the terrible danger of personal service, for some reason. Funny how that happens. I guess it's not sexy enough for them.

Me, I'm a misanthrope. If I had my way, I'd prefer not to deal with either people or machines. But given that I enjoy modern conveniences like cell phones and Internet shopping, I don't see that I have much of a choice. I guess I could take after Stross, who reportedly keeps all of his personal email on a USB disk, uses a ton of anonymizing browser plugins, and periodically checks to make sure his Internet habits are unwatched, but it sounds like a lot of work. And for what? The off-chance that I'm ever important enough that someone will care? The belief that no-one determined enough could discover my dark secrets anyway? How paranoid am I willing to be, before it interferes with my quality of life?

See also: David Brin's defense of a Transparent Society. Indeed, I understand that my point and Brin's largely dovetail: you're going to have to live in a world with drastically increased surveillance, he says. So we might want to worry less about how to prevent that surveillance entirely, and more to ensure that its power gradient doesn't end up entirely privileging the elites.

* Yes, the castle metaphor may be a stretch. But I liked it anyway.

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