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Is privacy dead?

Jay Cline | Jan. 7, 2014
Revelations in 2013 about NSA surveillance and the power of big-data analytics suggest the age of privacy is over. But a new 'privacy death index' places us far from the tipping point.

The NSA's former general counsel told the world's largest gathering of privacy professionals last year that the privacy laws they're championing are "stupid" and futile. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg recently described privacy as a social norm we've evolved away from, and Google's Eric Schmidt famously proposed that the only people who need privacy are those with something to hide.

Are they right? Is privacy passe?

2013 privacy recap
Several developments in the past year definitely point in that direction. We all can't keep up anymore with all of the new digital innovations hitting the streets, such as Google Glass, wearable health-monitoring sensors and's new DNA-linked family trees. Less and less of our personal information each day seems to be "off the grid."

At the same time, 2013 was the year we lost track of the limits of big-data analytics. Many of us saw the story about the researchers who could use your Facebook likes alone to predict with 88% to 95% accuracy whether you're black, gay or a Democrat. We saw the story about the newspaper that published a map of 33,000 gun-permit holders in two New York counties. We'd earlier read about the retailer that predicted a teenager was pregnant before her father knew it, merely by changes in her purchases of a group of 25 products. In 2013 we became fascinated with the different apps and TED talks that used data in ways we never thought possible.

But more than anything, this year we learned about the vast capabilities of the National Security Agency, which seemed to leave nothing digital out its hearing range.

When Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy boldly proclaimed in 1999, "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it," was he a prophet preparing us for the inevitable?

Imagining a world without privacy
When the common wisdom is moving in one direction, there's often a lot of money to be made going against it. That's what I think is happening with privacy. The rumors of privacy's demise are premature. Privacy isn't even halfway dead, and if and when we see privacy's death on the horizon, we'll know then how much we're willing to pay to reverse course.

If you think I'm too naive or optimistic, take a minute to imagine what the world would look like with zero privacy. I suggest there'd be three telltale features of life in that day:

1) ubiquitous, inescapable collection of personal data;

2) near-perfect predictive capability of that data; and

3) mandatory availability of that data.

In other words, in a world without privacy, anyone would know anything there is to know about you on demand. Moreover, that information would tell anyone what you're going to do next and how you'd react to different scenarios and stimuli.


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