Your privacy force Field for the Internet of Things

Published July 6, 2015   |   

The Internet of Things will teach us all a broader view of privacy as much about what is coming at you as what is taken from you.

Daniel Solove, the world’s greatest privacy influencer, just provided a beautiful summary of the wonderfully comprehensive and practical view of privacy he developed in his great book,Understanding Privacy.   He even offers us working stiffs unable even to absorb that short summary a picture that somehow captures it all:

big data and internet of things

Professor Solove’s view of privacy is IMHO the best there is, but for purposes of this post, please note that almost all of the action is associated with the arrows pointing out rather than with the arrow pointing in.   So it has been, I would argue, with privacy for a long time, including with the Fair Information Practice Principles, the foundations of data protection and of almost all of what we call privacy regulation, which address the collection, use, dissemination, and maintenance of personal information.

When your information is taken, used or disseminated unfairly by something, it may creep you out.  But when you walk into a room or down a street and thousands of things are swarming you, communicating with you and with each other, you may care at least as much about the invasion of your person and maybe the reconstitution of your self by the technology swarming you as about whether each piece of that technology is being fair.

I heard the desire to create seclusion beyond intrusion from Tim O’Reilly himself last week, the great interpreter of Web 2.0 and prophet of the Internet of Things.  He gave a talk on privacy to a small audience, speaking of privacy in the common manner as the collection and processing of data elements.  As an aside, however, he mentioned that he has generally given up on Twitter (where I like countless others learned from him to think in new ways) because it has become too overwhelming, in favor of Instagram where he  has far fewer connections and can see pictures of his grandchildren.   Twitter’s processing didn’t matter.

The swarm of Things — like the swarm of pings (false positives and real threats) faced by cybersecurity professionals, and the swarm of tweets, texts and emails faced by all of the rest of us — led me to dream up an earthquake-volcano tectonic model of privacy in which the swarm of technology invades the mantle of the earth, where below those invaders is our personal information and we live our lives atop the previously pleasant crust.   As it invades, the swarm squishes down our fairness protections on information processing, while pushing upward to completely disrupt and erupt all over the way we are able to experience and live our lives.

In this model, data privacy and existential privacy move further and further away from each other, dangerously separated as our relationship to the world and to others becomes entirely mediated by the swarm of things.   On the data privacy, supply side in the post-Snowden world, however, we see extraordinary progress not only in the complete legitimacy of and insistence on encryption without backdoors, the development of platforms that keep and analyze personal data at the device level, and other ways of distinguishing between sharing on the one hand and surveillance and stalking on the other:

internet of things

Privacy platforms have been one of our major themes, explored in connected cars, wearables and elsewhere. but, I have always ‘worried” that except in a theoretical world of pure solipsism in which your phone “swallows you”(i.e., becomes your entire lifeworld), platforms will not give you enough  protection as you walk down the street or into a room of things set up by somebody else, and may not give you enough privacy in your “private” areas of your home, your car and your body.

With inspiration from my great partner of more than a decade Amanda M. Witt, I can now envision the privacy app for the world of  volcanoes, earthquakes and the swarm of the Internet of Things, in which the most fearsome privacy torts are intrusion into seclusion and other new “arrows pointing in,” and if we can envision it, some of you can build it; you know who you are.   I call it Privacy Force Field.  It disables or makes you invisible to (but Privacy invisibility Cloak doesn’t look as cool) the sensors swarming you, or it builds a virtual private world with an effective Do Not Disturb sign atop those things.  With its Ghostery plugin you actually see all the pings from all the Things on the transparent Force Field wall/screen, making your experience into a sci fi battle royale.  But turn the plugin off and you get what you really want: your quiet place of privacy, the place of your “inviolate personality.”  Enjoy.

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