29 June 2008

Privacy, reputation and data mining

Friday morning, bright and early at the Darklight festival, I attended the symposium on privacy on the Internet, which started with a presentation by Daniel Solove. The presentation was entertaining and informative, and made legal matters sound interesting and simple, which I would say is no simple feast. As Daithi points out in his thorough report on the symposium, the presentation was drawn from the Solove's book The Future of Reputation, which can be read online free of charge (isn't that nice...) However, like Niall, I would have liked to have heard more about his new book on privacy.

On the whole, I noticed three strands of thought at the symposium, which I felt would have benefited from being treated separately. One was the concept of permanence of data and text on the Internet, linked also to new social practices, and maybe the emergence of a different conceptualisation of privacy by a new generation. A second strand was gossip, or non authorised information published by private people (bloggers/social network users) on other people or organizations; in this case, there were some suggestions as to a legal solution. The third strand, data mining, was introduced by Caroline Campbell and visibly touched a chord with the audience.

At the heart of the debate was the question raised by Solove of a change in the concept of privacy, and of the necessity for a definition of that concept, which is currently seen in binary terms, public as opposed to private, the home as opposed to the public space. Listening to Solove and some of his examples of possible loss of privacy, such as the digital picture of someone buying some item in a pharmacy, it struck me that this binary concept is very much a city concept. Life in a village implies a different expectations of privacy; you know the chemist, who knows your mother/father/neighbour. To some extent, this can be extended to life in Ireland, where the 6 levels of separation are naturally reduced. And this of course is also reflected in the metaphor of the global village and could be linked to ideas of tribal interaction suggested by Steve Boyd: "I maintain that we are returning to ways of interaction that are ancient, pre-industrial."

Moreover, this binary aspect is too simplistic, although the digital world seems to have inherited it to a certain extent. Social network sites in general only make a distinction between public and private profiles/pages/blogs. In this matter, LiveJournal has a very sophisticated approach to privacy issues, with the possibility of several privacy settings, from public to completely private, with various access to various posts possible for pre-set groupings of friends/acquaintances.

The discussion was lively and interesting, revolving mainly on the use of personal data by corporations , commercial entities, even governments, all represented by the ubiquitous "they". "They know what you are doing online"... the spectre of Big Brother was hovering, conjured by Amazon's recommendations and Google ads. While this aspect of privacy - or lack thereof - was both fascinating and slightly creepy, I would also have liked a discussion on "we are them", as suggested by a member of the audience.

To be continued, I hope.


annette said...

Cathy - I was the person in the audience who talked about 'we are them' and I'm so sorry we didn't get a chance to say hello - I hope the PhD is going well!

Cathy said...

Hi Annette, sorry we missed each other, I would have enjoyed talking to you. PhD is going steadily at the moment, which is good. Hope you are progressing faster than me :)