net.wars: Camera obscura

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 25 May 2012

There was a smoke machine running in the corner when I arrived at today's Digital Shoreditch, an afternoon considering digital identity, part of a much larger, multi-week festival. Briefly, I wondered if the organizers making a point about privacy. Apparently not; they shut it off when the talks started.

Wendy M Grossman

The range of speakers served as a useful reminder that the debates we in what I think of as the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy sector are rather narrowly framed around what we can practically build into software and services to protect privacy (and why so few people seem to care). We wrangle over what people post on Facebook (and what they shouldn't), or how much Google (or the NHS) knows about us and shares with other organizations.

But we don't get into matters of what kinds of lies we tell to protect our public image. Lindsey Clay, the managing director of Thinkbox, the marketing body for UK commercial TV, who kicked off an array of people talking about brands and marketing (though some of them in good causes), did a good, if unconscious, job of showing what privacy activists are up against: the entire mainstream of business is going the other way.

Sounding like Dr Gregory House, people lie in focus groups, she explained, showing a slide comparing actual TV viewer data from Sky to what those people said about what they watched. They claim to fast-forward; really, they watch ads and think about them. They claim to time-shift almost everything; really, they watch live. They claim to watch very little TV; really, they need to sign up for the SPOGO program Richard Pearey explained a little while later. (A tsk-tsk to Pearey: Tim Berners-Lee is a fine and eminent scientist, but he did not invent the Internet. He invented the *Web*.) For me, Clay is confusing "identity" with "image". My image claims to read widely instead of watching TV shows; my identity buys DVDs from Amazon..

Of course I find Clay's view of the Net dismaying – "TV provides the content for us to broadcast on our public identity channels," she said. This is very much the view of the world the Open Rights Group campaigns to up-end: consumers are creators, too, and surely we (consumers) have a lot more to talk about than just what was on TV last night.

Tony Fish, author of My Digital Footrprint, following up shortly afterwards, presented a much more cogent view and some sound practical advice. Instead of trying to unravel the enduring conundrum of trust, identity, and privacy – which he claims dates back to before Aristotle – start by working out your own personal attitude to how you'd like your data treated.

I had a plan to talk about something similar, but Fish summed up the problem of digital identity rather nicely. No one model of privacy fits all people or all cases. The models and expectations we have take various forms – which he displayed as a nice set of Venn diagrams. Underlying that is the real model, in which we have no rights. Today, privacy is a setting and trust is the challenger. The gap between our expectations and reality is the creepiness factor.

Combine that with reading a book of William Gibson's non-fiction, and you get the reflection that the future we're living in is not at all like the one we – for some value of "we" that begins with those guys who did the actual building instead of just writing commentary about it – though we might be building 20 years ago. At the time, we imagined that the future of digital identity would look something like mathematics, where the widespread use of crypto meant that authentication would proceed by a series of discrete transactions tailored to each role we wanted to play. A library subscriber would disclose different data from a driver stopped by a policeman, who would show a different set to the border guard checking passports. We – or more precisely, Phil Zimmermann and Carl Ellison – imagined a Web of trust, a peer-to-peer world in which we could all authenticate the people we know to each other.

Instead, partly because all the privacy stuff is so hard to use, even though it didn't have to be, we have a world where at any one time there are a handful of gatekeepers who are fighting for control of consumers and their computers in whatever the current paradigm is. In 1992, it was the desktop: Microsoft, Lotus, and Borland. In 1997, it was portals: AOL, Yahoo!, and Microsoft. In 2002, it was search: Google, Microsoft, and, well, probably still Yahoo!. Today, it's social media and the cloud: Google, Apple, and Facebook. In 2017, it will be – I don't know, something in the mobile world, presumably.

Around the time I began to sound like an anti-Facebook obsessive, an audience questioner made the smartest comment of the day: "In ten years Facebook may not exist." That's true. But most likely someone will have the data, probably the third-party brokers behind the scenes. In the fantasy future of 1992, we were our own brokers. If William Heath succeeds with personal data stores, maybe we still can be.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) (but please turn off HTML).