Privacy: issues with user empowerment

Here’s is a little thought experiment:

Imagine a factory worker that was recently diagnosed with cancer after working in a factory for a while, and imagine that their doctor, who we’ll call Dr. Seller, sends the patent off after the diagnosis with not more than some of the following sentences:

a) “Yep you’ve got cancer, you shouldn’t have worked in the factory for that long around those chemicals.”

b) “I used to work at a factory as well and I didn’t get sick because I stay away from SUBSTANCE-1, wear these protective gloves I bought from the pharmacy when pouring SUBSTANCE-2, and periodically take blood tests, and white blood cell counts.”

c) “Oh we gotta make the drawers at the factory that contain gloves and masks easier to spot.”

d) “I can teach you how to become a doctor, and then you can diagnose yourself earlier next time.”

I think it wouldn’t be hard to reach consensus about how bad this doctor is, and how they’re not doing their job adequately. I’d even claim they’re offloading it to the patient.

Imagine now that more factory workers got diagnosed with cancer, and that some doctors organized a meeting to discuss possible solutions, including government regulations on what chemicals can be used in factories and how much training factory workers had to get before being handed potentially hazardous tasks. Imagine further that Dr. Seller’s response to those suggestions was

“That won’t help much, factories will still use dangerous chemicals, there’s no point in regulating that. Let’s instead train all factory workers to become doctors and chemists, so they spot the issue on their own. Let’s empower them instead of regulating the industry.”

Assuming Dr. Seller isn’t being sarcastic, we can probably all agree that their ideas are actually somewhat noble though definitely naive.

Unfortunately, this is the exact approach we take to a lot of online privacy issues. There’s a lot of activity in hackerspaces around empowering users to protect themselves, and that’s really cool for people who are seeking that kind of empowerment. Though this definitely doesn’t cure it for the rest of the population, who would rather spend their time differently.

And the rest of the population spending their time variously is important for humanity. We need doctors, engineers, social people, people with hard skills, people with soft skills, artists, writers, musicians, psychologists, physiologists, thinkers, politicians, managers, and so on. We need all of them. The technical of us should spend more time figuring things out in a way that makes it unnecessary for the not so technical of us to become technical unless they so desire.

Privacy by default is the best way to get privacy to the masses. By that, I mean that users should surf the internet with the assumption that at least legally, everything they do is used only where it is clearly indicated (in layman terms) as long as they don’t explicitly give up their privacy. I think further that this should be enforced by states because the technical dream of having your user-agent (aka your browser) taking care of you is just that, a dream. Google has control of most of the internet through the Chromiuum1. Mozilla’s money comes from selling your homepage. They’re trying their best, but we shouldn’t be relying on just good deeds.

This is not asking for censorship as some would have you think, this is asking for consent. It’d be ridiculous if someone takes a close up portrait of you while you walk without asking you2. The internet shouldn’t magically change that. I’m not arguing here for the NSA. I want to keep my private information away from both private and public funded research. I’m arguing for finding solutions that can scale to whole populations. We’re in an era of unprecedented propaganda, and we need pragmatic solutions to tackle it, not idealistic unattainable ones.

P.S: To not be hypocritical a lot of us including myself need to admit how much we’ve contributed to the current state of the internet. If you’ve ever pirated anything on a website that made a profit out of selling user data or through ads then you have contributed to nudging the internet money machine in that direction. We’re all responsible for this, GAFA and all.

  1. the chromiuum hypotheses says that there’s a point in history after which all browsers used will be chromium derivatives.

  2. we don’t all wanna live in holywood, and we certainly don’t all enjoy the same kind of “freedom of speech”.