Since I wrote Why I’m weird about privacy over a year ago, it’s become one of the more unusual things I’ve published here.
My posts generally break down into three buckets: useful information, light personal trifles, and heavy, thoughtful essays. Why I’m weird had a bit of each, and it generated a similarly mixed response. Strangers discussed it online more than friends, but friends asked about it offline more than my other essays, and they engaged with the practical info and tips just as much as the deeper ideas, assuming it had any to begin with.
I enjoyed writing it, and when I re-read it now, it holds up: I’m still weird in all the same ways. However, the world itself is changing. Online privacy concerns loom ever larger in the public consciousness, including behavioral tracking, re-identification, and the lopsided balance of power we feel information-rich companies like Google and Facebook hold over us. Europe is leading the push for a “right to be forgotten”, a seductively compelling idea that unfortunately may raise more questions than it answers.
There may not be many truly new ideas, but the volume is definitely getting louder, and I’ve enjoyed the newfound attention to privacy and big data from researchers across many fields. Here are a few standouts:
- Daniel Solove, a law professor at GWU, has been a leading thinker on privacy and law for decades. His book Nothing to Hide, based on his academic work, thrusts privacy forward as a cornerstone of healthy civil society, something to be promoted for its wide ranging benefits and not just defended to pacify a few hand-wringing luddites.
- Information theorists have demolished any hope of digging ourselves out of these holes with de-identification alone. Cynthia Dwork‘s Differential Privacy in particular has emerged as a crushing incompleteness theorem, proving that true de-identification is impossible in any formal sense.
- People from academia and industry are not only talking about privacy and big data, they’re actually listening to each other. I’ve appreciated the newly explicit tradeoff between privacy and public goods that come from data mining, such as medical research, governance reform, and tackling climate change. When we look at these questions as tradeoffs, and honestly weigh all sides, we’re more likely to land in a halfway decent place.
On a lighter note, my new checks came in the mail yesterday! I’ve been gradually moving accounts from my name to my LLC’s, and the financial services are easily the most critical. I’m just a few steps away from closing the accounts in my name entirely. I’ll soon be able now move money around without any visible connection to my name, address, or any other PII. Woot!