TOC Inter-Locke(d) Your Turn

July 28, 2009

How could I but recommend reading someone who declares "privacy matters" and follows with a masterly analysis of what privacy violation can entail: spying, blackmail, libel, impersonification? Simson Garfinkel's recent paper on privacy (*) is worth revisiting. Yet its strength lies elsewhere.

While privacy matters, what matters more is that privacy cannot exist without security and a way of "identifying people on the Internet". Expert on security, Simson Garfinkel finds identity the harder issue "ironically, because of perceived privacy concerns". Recognizing how privacy and identity are interlocked is essential to the search for sustainable solutions. Not for nothing have I adopted the motto "Privacy, Identity, Responsibility".

Simson Garfinkel proposes "a strong electronic identity system that's free to use and backed by the governments of the world - a true passport for online access". I happen to think this solution is flawed for the two reasons duly mentioned by the author. It magnifies the harm done by inevitable errors and opens the door for abuse by overbearing governments. Rather I promote a more decentralized approach whereby our identity is vouchsafed by local recommenders as appropriate for each intended transaction.

This could lead to a fruitful debate since nothing in principle prevents one to combine strong technical implementation, called for by Simson Garkinkel, with strict political decentralization, which I advocate. But let us leave for tomorrow how to build the best identification system.

The purpose of this fillip is to emphasize how much could be gained by providing a genuine forum where reasonable voices would expose the full web of influences which drive our Information Age. It is not that we lack individual voices to focus their audiences on such and such a link.

Take Christian Engström, elected to the European Parliament on "a manifesto [...] to reform copyright laws and gradually abolish the patent system" (**). His contribution is to highlight how privacy stands in the way of fighting illegal file-sharing. He may well resent Salamander Davoudi and Tim Bradshaw for writing "an anarchic and nihilist foe - which is yet to make a coherent argument for how content production would be paid for in a copyright-free future - is a tough opponent" (***). Yet how can we forget the laws of economics?

Quoted by Brad Stone in his article about the remote deletion by Amazon of illegal copies of "1984" found on its Kindle readers (****), law professor Randal Picker "argues such systems can [...] allow companies to better enforce copyright laws". I would put it in a slightly different perspective. In the absence of any viable legal protection, intellectual production can no longer be economically traded but, as Brad Stone makes clear, can still be safely rented on a well tethered device.

This lesson has been well understood by the Associated Press. According to Richard Pérez-Peña (*****), the A.P. wants to tether "each article - and, in the future, each picture and video - [...] with a digital "wrapper"" which would enforce "how the article is used".

On the contrary Etisalat recently asked its customers "to "upgrade" the software on their devices", Robin Wiggleworth, Paul Taylor and Joseph Menn report (******). This smacks of amateurism. Had lawyers and engineers properly tethered Etisalat subscribers' BlackBerrys, it would have automated its spyware download and left its customers without recourse against a measure "claimed [to] improve perfomance".

Jonathan Zittrain's vivid expression shows great economic promise. Unfortunately the author reminds us of the links between tethering and the loss of both user privacy and developer freedom (*******). Seriously is it the future what Christian Engström has in mind for us?

Make no mistake, these interlocking connections are but a small sample. The lessons however should already be clear. One voice can only highlight an issue, never a complete, sustainable solution, mine being no exception. If we do not combine our voices, the result will be dictated by the relative economic powers of established companies which hang on outdated privileges and fast growing predators which plunder every data source in sight.

Let the Information Age become a new Dark Age, I call like-minded voices to gather their insights at a common philosopher's corner.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............. Privacy Requires Security, Not Abstinence, by Simson Garfinkel (Technology Review) - July-August, 2009
  • (**) ........... Copyrights laws are a threat to our online freedom, by Christian Engström (Financial Times) - July 9, 2009
  • (***) ......... Pirates on parade, by Salamander Davoudi and Tim Bradshaw (Financial Times) - July 22, 2009
  • (****) ....... Amazon Faces a Fight Over Its E-Books, by Brad Stone (New York Times) - July 27, 2009
  • (*****) ..... A.P. Seeks To Block Unpaid Use Of Content, by Richard Pérez-Peña (New York Times) - July 24, 2009
  • (******) ... BlackBerry rogue software leaves sour taste in UAE, by Robin Wiggleworth, Paul Taylor and Joseph Menn (Financial Times) - July 23, 2009
  • (*******) . Lost in the Cloud, by Jonathan Zittrain (New York Times) - July 20, 2009
July 2009
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