James Wallbank on Fri, 19 Feb 2010 13:53:14 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Google Buzz and the Surveillance Economy

Just yesterday I went to a research workshop with the topic of online
identity, surveillance, and privacy. One key datum that emerged was
that, while researchers and activists are highly exercised by privacy
issues, people who engage with the net are typically unconcerned.

Why might this be?

We've observed that many young people who use Access Space routinely
create alternate, temporary identities on free mail services, social
networking sites and so on. They see these avatars as entirely
throw-away, anonymous entities.

Naturally, they are unconcerned by privacy issues of these "non
people". But while their privacy is protected in this way, they are
unable to build up genuine reputation and relationships online. Over
time their empowering tactic mutates into a disempowering strategy.

One observation which might explain the lack of concern for privacy
issues is the question, "Who owns your identity?". Individuals
typically assume (and gaily assert) that their identity is a property
of themselves, and that they own it. They are reinforced in this
notion by their ability to play with identity - to generate new,
temporary identities at the click of a button.

However, businesses and governmental organisations have an entirely
different perspective - they, not you, own your identity. This
differing view may explain why consumers are unconcerned - they're
(perhaps wrongly) confident that identity is something they own.

Meanwhile, the sorts of dialogue which businesses have with consumers
around identity and privacy betrays this differing perspective.
Businesses will typically assure you that your personal details will
be protected - that they will not share your details with other
consumers. What they mention in much smaller print is that, of course,
they will be happy to share your details with institutions and

Perhaps a way to ensure that consumers understand "the deal" with
online privacy would be to institute a "Law of Symmetrical Privacy"
- in broad terms, data collectors would have to offer, or withhold,
data equally to all markets - individuals as well as government and
business. So, if Facebook said that they wouldn't share their email
address with other users, they would be obliged equally NOT to share
your email address with businesses or institutions. If a business
disclosed that they might sell your details to another business, then
they would be required also to offer your email address for sale to
other individuals (proportionately priced, of course - a single email
address might just cost a few pennies).

How would you feel about that?

This "leveling" or "equaling" of the transaction would make it much
easier for consumers to correctly perceive what privacy they were
yielding up when interacting with an online service.

Best Regards,


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