Conversations about life & privacy in the digital age

A Brief History of Privacy

Remember the 15 year-old kid who was videotaped waving around a golf ball retriever while pretending it was a light saber in 2002? The video was uploaded – unknowingly – to an Internet video site by some of the boy’s friends. All across the Internet, people started mocking him, making fun of his awkward maneuvers. Then, several edited videos of “the Star Wars Kid” started to be uploaded, adorned with special effects. It was a breach of privacy that made this kid an internet sensation.

Privacy has a very long history. In fact, privacy in America has gone through drastic changes since the 1600′s as you can see in this chart. Fortunately, methods of protecting privacy are always evolving and getting better. Unfortunately, security breaches will always occur.

The legal concept of privacy in the United States states that if you intend to keep something secret then it shall, in fact, be kept secret. All other information is considered public. However, the societal concept of privacy is a bit more complicated and has been for a very long time. For example, many people have a strong desire to share experiences, anecdotes, photos, videos and souvenirs. However, those same people don’t like when others they didn’t invite to share in those experiences have access to this information. Then the question shifts to – ‘Who can I trust with this shared data?’

Controlling privacy online requires effort. It can result in a paradox where we can be unaware of how much information we are sharing and with whom we are sharing it. Danah Boyd, an anthropologist and social networking expert says, “information is not private because no one knows it; it is private because the knowing is limited and controlled.”

Managing online privacy is difficult because we do not have the degree of control we would have in an offline environment. However, there are protective options available. Since inception, SpiderOak has been very focused and passionate about online privacy. This lead to the creation of our 100% ‘zero-knowledge’ privacy approach to storing users’ data. More recently, we have worked closely with our friends at Electronic Frontier Foundation who are continually active in protecting the digital rights of online users.

How important is privacy to you? Do you have any stories you’d like to share where your privacy was compromised? How has it changed your online activity? Please don’t hesitate to write your thoughts and/or ideas and ways you protect your privacy.

On a related note and if interested further, I encourage you to read a good book on this topic – “Privacy and Big Data”.

Some perspective

Taking full advantage of the ability to work from anywhere with an internet connection, I’ve been living it up in London recently. I’m sharing a space much smaller than I’m used to with my girlfriend while I’m here, so I’ve been leaving to work from cafés much more than normal. Yesterday, I gave the British Library a shot.

For those unfamiliar with it, the middle of the main gallery in the library is the King’s Library Tower (not my photo). The structure is not unlike what other high-profile information stores look like, and the general arrangement of volumes stacked as tight as possible on shelves is unchanged. Beyond that, the thing that strikes me about King George III’s library is that it’s largely a reference collection. It’s not rare and exotic books for collecting the books; it’s an honest attempt to collect a large body of human knowledge (much like some modern institutions). We could certainly store scanned images of all those pages here at SpiderOak, and have space left over for intern storage innovative new things in the rack cabinet.

But it’s not about that, is it? A few 2 TB drives full of TIFFs and the OCR output? The books, and the tower they’re contained in, represent human history and progress in a way that a USB thumbdrive can never present. These books are still in circulation at the British Library. There’s certainly a place for the fully-indexed computerized system, but not here. In this information age, many of us idolize books as containers of knowledge, imperfect as they are. They burn. They get soggy and decay. You can easily break their bindings, scattering the pages to the wind. You can’t back it up to SpiderOak!

On the other side, they force you to consider them. Not just a single book here or there that can be set aside, but a big stack of books that force you to consider them. What are they? They’re fragile containers of what makes us human. They make us consider the very basis of what we think, how we think it, and what we’ve already thought of, and force it into our consciousness through their physicality that nothing else can match. It is humbling and awe-inspiring by turns, and in a way, they mirror us as they imortalize us.