Technology Policy

Keep Your Hands Off My Privacy

Two recent events – one in the public sector, one in the private sector – have helped to engage millions of Americans in a debate on privacy rights and information security: the debate over SOPA & Facebook employer hacking. These actions have led to robust debates, not just about what we as individuals can reasonably expect when we share – knowingly or not – our personal information, but what responsibilities businesses and governments that track and store that data should exercise on our behalf as consumers and citizens.

For Congress, the debate over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), with its broad powers for private information collection, prosecutorial discretion against suspected copyright theft and potential termination of websites that host pirated content, fostered swift, powerful rebukes from a large faction of protestors. While the intent of the bill and its counterpart in the Senate, the Protect IP Act, may be noble – to stop those who knowingly steal and distribute copyrighted material – an alliance of open government activists, technology companies and libertarians coalesced together to force serious revisions, perhaps killing it altogether. Most Americans oppose stricter regulations on content consumption and internet policing, and showed Congress that attempts to infringe on their internet rights would not be taken lightly. It appears you can still be anti-regulation and anti-piracy.

Over the past few days, reports have surfaced that some private employers have begun asking interviewees to hand over their Facebook passwords as part of the hiring process. This shocking development led Facebook to threaten a lawsuit against these employers if such requests continue (as such actions clearly violate Facebook’s official user policies). Many of the same groups fighting SOPA are supporting the company’s actions. Because of this public outcry, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) is attempting to draft legislation that will outlaw such practices.

These two instances are just the most recent flashpoints in an extremely important debate over internet and information privacy. The real, vital question may be “What should the government or business be able to do with our data,” not “Do we, as private citizens, really understand the implications of our actions?” So much of our lives are lived in public. We see what people eat at every meal, which articles they link to and who they follow on Twitter. But that is only the tip of the information iceberg. While these same folks get prickly when Facebook changes its timeline display or Congress tries to broaden the government’s ability to shut down websites that break laws, many of them have lived comfortably for years with GPS systems in vehicles, shopping with credit cards, or searching on Google. So why so much furor over protecting status updates that are purposefully put out by people to attract attention?

As a society, we have gotten closer and closer to the edge of privacy depletion. Sooner or later, we will be walking off that cliff. We can no longer hope to share every detail of our daily lives and expect everyone else not to care. There is real money to be made in caring about your needs and wants – just ask those folks advertising on your Facebook walls – but, beyond that, people are fundamentally losing their right to privacy. And that is because they are, in a sense, wanting to lose it. We cannot keep saying “Hi, this is who I am,” and at the same time demanding “Quit trying to know things about me.” This juxtaposition is at the heart of these public debates.

While I think citizens should still demand reasonable, sensible privacy protections from businesses and governments that collect their information, these debates do little good if they are solely reactive. It’s time for government groups, information security firms, technology giants and legislators to come together and work smartly to develop an Internet bill of rights. Such a bill would level the playing field and create a baseline of expectations for citizens when they engage and act online. This could help boost innovation and increase competition. The internet, much like democracy itself, is built on the backs of citizens who engage, share and make their opinions known. Voting is now surfing. So rather than continue these reactive debates that produce consternation and distrust, we should come together and adopt sensible regulations that decrease the secrecy of corporate and government information collection, while building fair and balanced firewalls that the public can trust.

Then, we can all tweet about the progress we’re making.

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