Is Privacy an Antiquated Concept?

The Clash of 20th Century Values and 21st Century Technology

Last month, the Harvard Crimson published an editorial commenting on the MIT Media Lab’s collective intelligence experiment with about 100 MIT students from Random Hall.

The experiment, performed under the direction of Alex Pentland PhD ’82, provided the students with smartphones which tracked the user’s phone calls, e-mails, text messages, and more. This data was collected by the Media Lab and used to develop a “moving picture of the dorm’s social network,” according to description published in The New York Times.

The Crimson, though not critical of the experiment, characterizes it as a “deal with the digital devil,” and suggests that collective intelligence, like the data gathered by the Media Lab, can be hijacked by “powerful firms or the government” in true Orwellian fashion. While this is certainly true, the true danger comes in the potential for knee-jerk condemnation of a technology that today’s legislators cannot hope to fully comprehend.

The Crimson correctly advises that “any new regulations on this booming sector of the economy will have to be carefully crafted.” Collective intelligence could be maliciously used by oppressive governments, health insurance providers, and others to target potential dissidents or deny healthcare coverage to at-risk individuals.

However, at this stage in the growth of collective intelligence, while asking for regulation may sound prudent, it could be dangerously premature.

Like with many 21st century advancements, our government is usually slow to catch on. In 2006, former Senator Ted Stevens, head of the Senate Commerce Committee, famously described the internet as a “series of tubes,” and claimed that “an internet” sent by his staff arrived late because said tubes were filled.

Additionally, our government has long dragged its feet on stem cell research legislation — a field of research which could have been producing life-saving advances by now had it not been “delayed” by government delay and inaction.

These kinds of things transcend party lines. Congress doesn’t use the internet and doesn’t understand the Internet the way our generation does, and by extension, they don’t understand the power of collective intelligence. It has nothing to do with how capable or intelligent our congressmen and women are — it’s a simple function of how they grew up understanding information, technology, and privacy.

The past 15 years have arguably seen more change in those three aspects of society than the half-century before. Trusting these people to regulate something they don’t, and cannot understand, like digital privacy, is a risky road to go down.

As The Times mentioned in their piece, collective intelligence has an enormous potential to change the world for the better. As an example, Google recently launched “Google Flu Trends” (http://www.google.org/flutrends/), which can determine locations of flu outbreaks based on queries for flu symptoms.

This is only possible thanks to the aggregation of data linking keywords to users’ locations, but it’s not hard to imagine paranoid baby boomers in Congress demanding that Google dissociate search terms from location under the fear that such information could be abused. Though the Crimson rightly suggests “carefully crafted” regulation to prevent these kinds of missteps, it’s hard to be careful when the people doing the crafting do not truly understand what they’re dealing with.

But maybe this issue won’t be a problem for future generations of lawmakers. There is growing evidence to suggest that the modern obsession with privacy is a thing of the 20th century. Take the increasingly-popular Twitter. With an incredible growth rate and over 5 million visitors in September 2008, Twitter allows users to voluntarily divulge their location and activities to any of their friends (or the general public).

Facebook profiles are also a treasure trove of willingly provided information: who your friends are, where you are, where you’re from, your favorite movies, TV shows, books, and more. And the more normal it is for this information to be public, the harder it is for people to use this information maliciously.

Companies like Yahoo and Twitter have recently learned the hard way that password/account protection questions like “what school did you go to?” and “what was your first pet’s name?” are data that a quick Facebook check (or Wikipedia search, in Sarah Palin’s case) can easily dig up. So they’re changing these account protection tools to be compatible with an increasingly public digital world.

The ease with which a thief can steal your identity is a largely a function of how much information it is “normal” to divulge. So while you may have been shocked if a stranger approached you in 1994 and told you your birthday, hometown, high school, and favorite movie, it would be thoroughly unremarkable in 2009.

Privacy may very well be something wholly temporary, and that’s not a bad thing. The sooner we stop trying to impose 20th century standards of privacy on 21st century technologies like collective intelligence, the better.