Monday, 25 March 2013

Personal Information is the Currency of the Internet

When we talk about privacy of personal information on the Internet what do we mean?  Many people assume it is the punch-line to a joke, as it is the accepted wisdom that there is no privacy on the Internet.  But the wisdom of the crowds is not something I'd bet on.

Legally personal information is anything that can identify an individual.  But this is an overly broad definition, and includes everything you have on your business card.  Morally personal information is that which is in the sphere of your domestic life.  But the work/life balance is increasingly blurred so that doesn't really work either.  A practical definition of personal information that needs privacy protection is anything that can be used against you.

In the past this has been easy to understand and easy to protect.  We used well understood physical security controls.  If you want to stop someone looking into your bedroom window then close the curtains.  But today it's much harder to understand, as the controls are now all logical, changeable, and set by publicly listed corporations.  If you think you understand the Facebook privacy controls today, wait until they change them tomorrow.

These same public corporations are not privacy advocates.  Facebook and Sun have publicly said that the age of privacy is over.  Google, Microsoft and Apple have all gone to court to fight against having to keep your personal information secure.  But this is entirely rational behaviour on their part - if you don't pay for the service you are not the customer, you are the product.

But do we protest too much.  Do we really care about our privacy?

Turn on a TV anywhere in the Western world and you will be bombarded with reality TV shows.  Go to any news-stand and look at the array of gossip magazines.  These forms of entertainment are very popular, and very, very profitable.  And they are all based on voyeurism and abusing the privacy of others.  There is even a mainstream movie coming out this year called Identity Thief, that will let us laugh along at the hapless victim.

I think that there is an explanation, that explains our use of Facebook, that explains reality TV, an explains why privacy on the Internet really does make sense.

Personal information is the currency of the Internet.  It's what we use to pay for services.  It should be protected in the same way we protect our wallet, and we should make sensible choices about where to spend it.

For the value we get from Facebook, for most of us the spend is reasonable.  For the winners of reality TV shows, the spend is trivial compared to the real world cash they convert their privacy into, even if the same can't be said for the losers.

But if we don't protect our privacy, we will have nothing left to spend.  And no-one likes being poor.

Phil Kernick Chief Technology Officer