It wont be long before we look back and laugh at the way we approached privacy in the happy days of the web.
If only I had a penny for every time I’ve heard this aphorism!
True, most typology studies out there as well as our own experiences verify that currently most of us act like the kids that rush to the table and grab the candy in the classic delayed gratification marshmallow experiment: convenience rules over our privacy concerns.
But nothing is written in stone about this. Given enough information and some time to digest it, even greedy kids learn. Just take a look at some other things we didn’t use to care about.
Never had the pleasure of walking directly into a plane without a security check but from what I hear there was a time that this was how it worked. You would show up at the airport with ticket at hand. The check-in assistant would verify that your name is on the list and check your id. Then you would just walk past the security officer and go directly to the boarding gate. Simple as that.
Then came hijackers and ruined everything. Between 1968 and 1972, hijackers took over a commercial aircraft every other week, on average. So long with speedy boarding and farewell to smoking on planes 20 years later. If you want to get nostalgic, here you go:
Since we are in the topic of smoking and given that lots of privacy concerns are caused by personal data collection practices in online advertising I cannot avoid thinking of Betty and Don Draper with cigarettes at hand at work, in the car, or even at home with the kids.
To be honest I don’t have to go as far as the Mad Men heroes to draw examples. I am pretty, pretty, pretty sure I’ve seen some of this in real life.
Where do I start here? I could list some of my own but they are nowhere near as fun as some that I discovered with a quick search around the web. Things like:
– Glass blowing kit
– Lead casting kit
– Working electric power tools for kids
– The kerosine train
– Magic killer guns that impress, burn, or knock down your friends.
Pictures are louder than words. Just take a look at The 8 Most Wildly Irresponsible Vintage Toys. Last in this list is the “Atomic Energy Lab” which brings us to:
Recreational uses of radio active materials
I love micro-mechanics and there’s nothing more lovable about it than mechanical watches. There is a magic in listening to the ticking sound of a mechanical movement while observing the seconds hand sweep smoothly above the dial. You can even do it the dark because modern watches use super luminova to illuminate watch dial markings and hands.
I am stretching dangerously beyond my field here but from what I gather, Tritium, a radio-active material, needs to be handled very carefully. Radium is downright dangerous. I mean “you are going to die” dangerous. Just read a bit about what happened to the “Radium Girls” who used to apply radium on watch dials in an assembly line in the ’20s.
But we are not done yet. Remember the title of the section is “Recreational uses of radio active materials”. Watch dials are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s more of a useful than a recreational thing to be able to read the time in the dark (with some exceptions). Could society stomach the dangers for workers? Who knows? It doesn’t really matter because there are these other uses, that were truly recreational (in the beginning at least) for which I hope the answer is pretty clear. Here goes the list:Here
– Radium chocolate
– Radium water
– Radium toothpaste
– Radium spa
Details and imagery at 9 Ways People Used Radium Before We Understood the Risks.
Anyhow, I can go on for hours on this, talk about car safety belts, car seat headrests, balconies, furniture design etc but I think where I am getting at is clear: Societies evolve.
It takes some time and some pain but they evolve. Especially in our time with the ease at which information spreads, they evolve fast. Mark my words, it wont be long before we look back and laugh at the way we approached privacy in the happy days of the web.
Credits: JOHN LLOYD
Web firms may have an interest in pursuing the monetization of users’ data with some more moderation. If they don’t, privacy concerns as well as adoption of tracking and advertisement blocking tools could grow to a point where innovation will suffer.
As part of a recent keynote during the inaugural workshop of the Data Transparency Lab (Nov 20, 2014, Barcelona) I hinted that a Tragedy of the Commons around privacy might be the greatest challenge and danger for the future sustainability of the web, and the business models that keep it going.
With this post I would like to elaborate a bit more on what I meant and maybe explain why my slides are full of happy, innocent looking cows.
What is the Tragedy of the Commons?
According to Wikipedia:
“The tragedy of the commons is an economic theory by Garrett Hardin, which states that individuals acting independently and rationally according to each’s self-interest behave contrary to the best interests of the whole group by depleting some common resource. The term is taken from the title of an article written by Hardin in 1968, which is in turn based upon an essay by a Victorian economist on the effects of unregulated grazing on common land.”
In the classical Tragedy of the Commons, individual cattle farmers acting selfishly keep releasing more cows onto a common parcel of land despite knowing that a disproportionate number of cows will deplete the land of all grass and drive everyone out of business.
All the farmers share this common knowledge, but do nothing to avoid the impending tragedy.
Selfishness dictates that it is better for a farmer to reap the immediate benefit of having more cows, diverting the damage to others and/or pushing the consequences to the future.
The utopian outcome for each farmer is that he can keep accumulating cows without having to face the tragedy because, miraculously, others will reduce the size of their herds, saving the field from becoming barren. Unfortunately, everyone thinks alike and thus, eventually the field is overgrazed to destruction.
Are there cows on the Web?
There are several.
Not only in .jpeg, .gif or .tiff but also in other formats that, unlike the aforementioned compression standards, can lead to (non-grass related) tragedies. In my talk I am hinting on the following direct analogy between the aforementioned cow-related abstraction and the mounting concerns about privacy and the web.
Farmer: A company having a business model around the monetization of personal information of users. This includes online advertising, recommendation, e-commerce, data aggregation for market analysis, etc.
Cow: A technology for tracking users online without their explicit consent or knowledge. Tracking cookies, analytics code in websites and browsers, browser and IP fingerprinting, etc.
Grass: The trust that we as individuals have on the web, or more accurately, our hope and expectation that the web and its free services are doing “more good than bad”.
The main point here is that if the aforementioned business models (farmers) and technologies (cows) eat away user trust (grass) faster than its replenishment rate (free services that make us happy), then at some point the trust will be damaged beyond repair and users … will just abandon the web.
As extreme as the last statement may sound, the reader needs to keep in mind that other immensely popular media have been dethroned in the past. Print newspapers are nowhere near when they used to be in, say, the 30’s.
Broadcast television is nowhere near where it’s height in the 60’s (think the moon-landing, JFK’s assassination, etc.).
The signs of quickly decaying trust on the web are already here.
– More than 60% of web traffic was recently measured to be over encrypted HTTPs, and all reports agree that the trend is accelerating.
– AdBlock Plus is the #1 Firefox add-on in the Mozzilla download page with close to 20 million users. Other browser or mobile app marketplaces are heavily populated with anti-tracking add-ons and services.
– Regulators on both sides of the Atlantic are mobilizing to address privacy related challenges.
If ignored, the mounting concerns around online privacy and tracking on the web may lead to mass adoption of tracking and advertisement blocking tools. Removing advertising profits from the web probably means the end of free services that we currently take for granted.
The impact on innovation will be a second negative consequence. Last, lets not forget that advertisement and recommendation is something desired by most users, provided that certain red lines are not crossed.
What constitutes a red line may change from person to person but certain categories are safe candidates (health, sexual orientation, political beliefs).
In a recent study we have shown that it is possible to detect Interest-based Behavioral Targeting (IBT) and have delved into specific categories to measure the amount of targeting that goes on.
What can we do to avoid an online tragedy of the commons?
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant”
The famous quote of American Supreme Court litigator Louis Brandeis may have found yet another application in dealing with the privacy challenges of the web.
Despite the buzz around the topic, the average citizen is in the dark when it comes to issues relating to how his personal information is gathered and used online without his explicit authorization.
A few years ago we demonstrated that Price Discrimination seems to have already creeped into e-commerce. This means that the price that one see’s on his browser for a product or service may be different than the one observed at the same time by user in a different location.
Even at the same location, the personal traits of a user, such as his browsing history, may impact on the obtained price.
To permit users to test for themselves whether they are being subjected to price description we developed (the price) $heriff, a simple to use browser add-on that shows, in real time, how the price seen by a user compares with the prices seen by other users or fixed measurement proxies around the world.
Researchers at Columbia University and Northeastern University have, in a similar spirit, developed tools and methodologies that permit end users to test whether the advertisements or recommendations they received have been specifically targeted at them, or they are just random or location dependent.
Tools like $heriff and X-ray improve the transparency around online personal data. This has multifold benefits for all involved parties:
– End users can exercise choice and decide for themselves whether they want to use ad blocking software and when.
– Advertising and analytics companies can use the tools to self regulate and prove that they abstain from practices that most users find offending.
– Regulators and policy makers can use the tools to obtain valuable data that point to the real problems and help in drafting the right type of regulation for a very challenging problem.
Mooo, who needs more tragedy????
Photo credit: b3d_