The Day Privacy Died

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The ‘forgetting curve’ should be familiar to all of us. Occasionally a blessing, most of the time the opposite – like in the case at hand: Privacy died many years ago, but most of the world forgot. We’re pretending it’s alive if not well, and spend enormous resources trying to change that – to make it well, make it work. Maybe a short trip down memory lane can get us back on track?

Time flies and memory fades. An unfortunate fact of life, but a fortunate combination for storytellers and journalists. They can recycle their stories at (ir)regular intervals, surprising and impressing readers again and again.

I’m as guilty as anyone – and I’m sitting on both sides of the table, being an insatiable consumer of articles, books, analyses etc. and a ‘producer’, a writer and analyst. Having been hit regularly by the all too common ‘fading memory syndrome’, I regularly go back and read stuff, including my own articles. And I (blushing) keep getting surprised. Such as when I a couple of months back decided to refresh my memory on the ‘earthquake’ that hit the computer industry with the discovery of the so-called Meltdown and Spectre ‘leakages’ in 2019: Allegedly computer processors were leaking important information, making them risky and exposed.

The question I was asking myself was ‘why did it all disappear’ and ‘what happened’? The answer to the latter is ‘nothing much’, which is surprising given all the hoopla at the time. It turned out to be a tempest in a teapot – with global and long term consequences. A theoretical (although demonstrable) threat that was as likely to be exploited as that of a monkey writing Hamlet – given enough time and a typewriter.

The security researchers got their day in the sun, their names in Wikipedia and presumably went back to doing more research. While the world wasted a ton of time, resources while (and this is the worst part) the media attention forced processor manufacturers like Intel, AMD, Nvidia & co. to change their products to make an unlikely threat even more impossible. Which meant slowing them down. Everyone lost, even the climate, because slower processors inevitably means more energy to get the job done.

I digress. My point is actually privacy, which I’ve been spending a lot of time on recently. Not because I am overly concerned about privacy, but because I’m eager to understand the picture being discussed in expert meetings, journals and the media. The mechanisms, the options, the risks, the opportunities and what’s (really) good and bad. And to be able to discuss the useful/useless-ness of GDPR and its likes around the world.

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It’s an interesting ‘curriculum’ for a number of reasons, one of which being that we’ve never been here before, we’re breaking new ground every month. Privacy has never before been on the table like this. A few years back, all these data about every little personal detail – from DNA to SAT-scores, from rap sheets to medical journals – either didn’t exist or were very hard to get to.

Actually, privacy is a recent invention as discussed in Privacy Protection? Forget It and Privacy? We Don’t Really Care, which makes the subject even more fascinating: What changed, when, and why? This is the point at which I started to backtrack my own (fading) memory, browsing through notes, links, articles, summaries and more. And suddenly discovered a forgotten but extremely important source of inspiration: An article in Wired Magazine from January 2014, named How the NSA Almost Killed the Internet, with the following subtitle:

Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and the other tech titans have had to fight for their lives against their own government. An exclusive look inside their year from hell—and why the Internet will never be the same.

OK, that was 2014 summarizing events from 2013. The Internet is still around so it didn’t turn out all that bad, right? Wrong. This is the story about why we got here, about the events and actions that triggered today’s (somewhat misguided) privacy focus and fundamentally changed (however slowly) our understanding of social media and our own roles in the digital world. There is a distinct before-and-after 2013, Snowden (the ‘whistleblower’) and the ‘NSA revelations’. The end of our implicit trust in the googles of the world, the end of Google’s famous ‘don’t be evil’ motto (although it wasn’t formally removed until 2018).

It had to come to an end, just like the Morris Worm effectively terminated the Internet’s open innocence for good in 1988. This time the change appeared even more brutal because the bad guy turned out to be one of our own – seen from a westerner’s perspective. And not the least, the entire world got a reminder about the inherent selfishness in american lawmaking, something that has been haunting US businesses in the digital realm ever since. US privacy regulations provide american citizens and residents with (some) protection, the rest of the world none. In many ways the end of the idea of the Global Cloud – ‘store anywhere, use anywhere’:

“… [the] decline in trust, or even business, is not the tech companies’ biggest worry in the post-Snowden era. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes that the inherent value of the Internet will keep his users coming to the big online services. But he is among those who fear that the NSA revelations have unleashed a potential backlash from other nations that could hurt not only those companies but the net itself. “Part of the reason the US blew it is that governments around the world are now threatening the security of the Internet by passing their own laws that permit intrusions on Internet users,” he says.” [Wired Magazine, 2014]

Objectively, privacy died long before 2013. What happened on June 13th 2013 was the discovery of the body – and the Internet lost its last pieces of innocence was June 13th, 2013. Our digital favorites – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo and others – to whom we for years had entrusted our data assuming their implicit trustworthiness, had lied. Admittedly at gunpoint, courtesy of NSA, but a lie is a lie and broken trust is just that – broken. Since then the Internet – and social media – have been all business. Not our friends and not friendly. Nothing is ‘free’, everything is give-and-take. We still give social media and all kinds of digital service providers our data, but (hopefully) with some caution and with different expectations. Privacy is your responsibility, not someone else’s (again, check out Privacy Protection? Forget it …).

I’m not condoning what Snowden did, but the effect of what happened in 2013 was good. It had to happen sooner or later, and sooner is better. We may not always like it, but evolution is continuously moving. Puncturing the illusion of modern privacy was overdue. The now famous quote (or ‘quip’) by Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems was made 14 years earlier – in 1999: “You have zero privacy anyway…Get over it!”

Check out the Wired article, it’s sobering and thought provoking, possibly even more so in 2022 than in 2014.

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