Privacy, Technology’s Favorite Pet Peeve

I have to tell you, I break out laughing out loud a lot these days about the arguments put forth by technologists (as I was) who proclaim to be the moral curators of privacy the world should listen and obey to. Outright funny, if you know anything about technology, outright annoying and dangerous when you use it.

The naive arguments come from an article I wrote on the case of the FBI versus Apple and my talks with policymakers, in addition to some fiery debates on articles written by The Economist and other publications, where I have to jump in on occasion to clear the air.

Let me whet your appetite for what is to come: Technology is the unprotected back-door to nation-state sovereignty. Yep, I said it.

Privacy is a joke, upon us

What most people do not seem to realize, and technologists surely do not want to admit, is that many consumer-technologies today provide free services in exchange for selling your information to corporations as the target of their direct marketing campaigns. The vast majority of technology companies recently aligning with Apple’s stance against the FBI comply with treating you – in Apple’s words – “as the product.” Their business models rely on the resale of your privacy as their primary way to make money, with you as the innocent user not quite realizing what that means.

But it goes much further, to what one would hope is just an advertising scheme sold and targeted at aggregate samples. Not quite, as I have personally experienced how brick-and-mortar store Neiman-Marcus cross-correlates your credit-card information and purchases with the information you have given to other vendors to complete and resell your more complete profile. Many technology vendors do the same and now collaborate to submit “only the information you agreed to provide” to the same kinds of mechanisms to build, complete and resell a more comprehensive picture of your activities to any participating vendor willing to pay for it. The individual pieces of your privacy blissfully resold as a completed puzzle.

Many other technology schemes unleash the privacy of the innocent, such as the interconnect between online services using application-programming-interface (API) calls back-and-forth that in technology’s good form require overreaching permissions for similar advertising purposes. I am sure you have seen the request to grant access to your birthdate and friends list stored on Facebook to read a news article. The same overreach by which we are forced to allow always-on access to location-based services of say, mobile weather applications, providing those vendors with a constant stream of our whereabouts – for free.

Not quite so funny

These are just some examples of the “legitimate” use of your privacy, with most of us not having a clue what we just consented to. The feeble state of information technology security, as described in my article on the FBI and Apple case, also provides an array of illegitimate options for your privacy to make the merry-go-round.

Session prediction, cookie stealing and hijacking, cross-site scripting, man-in-the-middle attack, man-in-the-browser attack are just of few of the thousands of technical descriptions of the published vulnerabilities of online services that, thanks to the highly fragmented nature of technology’s cobbled together open-source architectures, yield to the exposure of privacy of online users, as witnessed by the booming self-perpetuating business of internet security.

So, I suggest for technologists to put the protection of privacy in perspective and work with the FBI to come up with better ways (yes, innovate) to provide access where needed. The same access technology has already implicitly supplied to corporations, putting advertisement dollars to work, and to mobile application providers using intelligent algorithms to track your whereabouts and behavior. It is laughable and out-of-line to withhold from our government, beholden to court-orders, the privacy of every individual already freely and cunningly made available to others. It is time for technology to be held accountable and reined in.


I am happy to act as the proverbial anti-Snowden and expose the weaknesses of the technology industry. For I do not report to the technology industry, I report to the integrity of societal values that makes our world a better place. With technology, if and when it is capable of providing such a benefit. Not a foregone conclusion I might add.

And despite embarrassing government excesses so publicly on display for everyone to take a democratic whack at, the mostly unchallenged excesses of the private sector pose a much more festering and immediate threat to our society. Albeit those excesses benefit from – you guessed it: privacy and not open to public knowledge and scrutiny. The private sector today proliferates more opaque and less broadly understood exposures of our privacy than the public sector.

So, for technology companies to take the moral high-ground in the protection of privacy is a long-shot in the dark, missing the moon and the stars. Let alone technology companies having not the faintest idea of how to compose, build and maintain non-totalitarian and elected civil liberties — nor driven by shareholder incentives to do so.

Freedom first

The Apple vs. FBI case shows the cracks in the foundation of our democracy. The interaction between the two parties is now vividly demonstrating how neither the public sector nor the private sector understands what principles are required to yield the proper protection of privacy in a modern world.

Apple’s lawyer may at best be able to protect the company’s downside successfully. But a lawyer cannot deliver the upside needed to protect the influential role of technology, with an economically sound rationale upon which technology can cooperate to yield the individual civil liberties every sovereignty aspires to. Apple’s best answer to this predicament remains an un-constructive “no” in a recent public hearing before Congress. Apple, on its own accord, is bound to lose soon the opportunity to lead the government towards the needs of a modern world.

Real-world economic illiteracy is no surprise to me, as I have outlined ad nauseam on this blog. For privacy must obey and subjugate to freedom, a definition of freedom we have left so poorly defined. And with freedom left undefined, the protection of privacy becomes the embarrassing goose-chase we see unfolding before us.

The sign of an intelligent nation is its willingness and ability to reinvent itself, upstream. Let’s inspire the world with new rigors of excellence we first and successfully apply to ourselves.

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