TOC The 10-year-old test Your Turn

January 22, 2013

"Why do we need [...]?" As Lucy Kellaway outsourced a recent column of hers to a "ten-year-old", "the best and toughest inquisitor there is" (*), I took it as a direct challenge. Can I indeed explain to such an unprejudiced audience why we need eprivacy?

Before I proceed though, ask yourself why this very simple question happens to be a challenge. As Lucy Kellaway puts it, "answering in a way which [the ten-year-old] can follow [is] quite tricky". Quite true, but this only account for half of the preteen inquisitor's toughness.

Forget the answer, the child's privilege is first and foremost in asking the question. As adults, we know better not to dare.

Who wants to tackle a problem today if it can become someone else's tomorrow? Public invisibility is power. Acknowledge a difficult issue, you shed power as you assume the responsibility to push for a solution. As Jamil Anderlini writes apropos the "air pollution in the Chinese capital" (**), "the end of denial is hugely significant but, for an administration that is expected to govern for the next decade, it could also be quite dangerous".

Imagine if those elected to executive and legislative positions in the United States dared to declare their democracy to be corrupted to the core. Imagine if the learned members of the US Supreme Court were to confirm it just no longer works to confuse corporations with persons.

Showing enough courage to clean a problem you have not created is one thing. It is another one entirely when you, yourself, may not be so clean to begin with. Plausible deniability is based on the self-interested refusal to ask the questions who would naturally come up to a ten-year-old's mind.

"The financier Thomas Weisel [...] said he had heard rumors of drug abuse, but dismiss them because the cyclists were passing the drug tests. He never personally saw an instance of doping on the team" (***). I believe him. I did the same. But, as Susanne Craig reveals, there is a slight difference between the two of us. "Lance Armstrong [was] a long time friend whom Mr Weisel had bankrolled through seven Tour de France wins".

If you are culpable naturally, you want to silence both any would-be inquisitor and all potential witnesses. Juliet Macur reminds us that "for nearly 15 years [Lance Armstrong] threaten[ed] those who dared to speak out against him and even su[ed] people who suggested that he doped" (****).

As one sees, the lighter your stakes in some matter, the easier it is to answer an uninhibited 10-year-old with questionable questions bearing on it.

Lucy Kellaway "was asked by [her] younger son what insurance was and what exactly [the directors] did during board meetings". Suppose twenty boys each have a bag of thirty marbles. Suppose a teacher may confiscate a boy's bag for reasons known to teachers. Suppose now each of the boys hides one of his marbles before hand to give, if need be, to the one whose bag is so taken. The victim loses ten marbles, the others one each, but everyone is made sure never to lose all thirty. Being a director herself, Lucy Kellaway surely must have found her son's second question trickier.

Lest he receive another arithmetic lesson in disguise, a ten-year-old may well stop his probing then and there. But were I to define eprivacy, I would say in much the same spirit. "Would you like it if someone pointed out your brand new sneakers to the school bully who might have otherwise forgotten to stomp on them with his muddy boots? Wouldn't you resent it if the son of your teacher was known to tell when was your birthday to anyone who asked, in exchange for a few sweets? Eprivacy is meant to decrease such dangerous indignities and petty deals behind your back."

Since I have the perfect solution to eprivacy, I did not find the 10-year-old test too challenging. I rather welcome inquiries. Not so society at large.

As Bill Keller writes, "when it comes to privacy, we are all hypocrites. We howl when a newspaper publishes public records about personal behavior. At the same time, we are acquiescing in a much more sweeping erosion of our privacy - government surveillance, corporate data-mining, political microtargeting, hacker invasions - with no comparable outpouring of protest" (*****).

Bill Keller is right but a bit unfair. Are we to be held responsible when each browser version makes it more difficult to find where to control cookies? And while the media has done a good job highlighting privacy related issues, many voices are happy to ceaselessly promote the benefits of sharing confidential personal information, which are real, and castigate as cretaceous curmudgeons those who worry about its costs, no less real.

Take health care. Peter Jaret convincingly shows "databases of clinical information are gold mines for medical research", without the need "to set up a clinical trial" (******). However "records must be "de-identified" before they can be used for research", and this privacy concern may prevent "looking at records from the same patient, which may be stored in several databases". The solution would be obvious to a 10-year-old.

Ask the patients for their informed and voluntary consent to enter their identifiable data in medical data mining and privacy is no more an obstacle.

In your dreams! For where does the gold come from? That consent is not required from supposedly "de-identified" ipatients, while it is to enlist patients in a medical trial. Yet not even the FTC believe in de-identification anymore. Yet Gina Kolata reports "some clever sleuthing on the Web [enabled] a genetics researcher to identify five people he randomly selected from [a] study group" of "more than 1,000 people" whose DNA "seemed perfectly anonymous" (*******). Yet some medical researchers insist their own results are confidential. Here is the true hypocrisy.

A powerful institution is wont to mock the powerlessness of isolated individuals. In a democracy, the normal recourse is through elected officials. But what is President Obama's position about privacy mean? The more convoluted the answer, the more conflicted the speaker. Sure enough read Sasha Issenberg to learn how, working for the Obama 12 campaign, "Carol Davidsen matched [...] lists of persuadable voters with cable providers' billing information" (********). Is this what is meant by the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law, a 10-year-old would ask.

Ownership of our personal data ought to be ours. Yet we must not dream. "There is always a well-known solution to every human problem - neat, plausible, and wrong", says David Rosenbloom, from the New York University School of Law, as quoted apropos corporate taxation by Vanessa Houlder (*********)(1). My proposal is not wrong, only ignored, but there is no denying our Information Age faces a real challenge.

A schoolchild mischievously gave Lucy Kellaway a hint by asking her "why do you get paid" although she had previously confessed enjoying "being a columnist". Were all information free, untainted by monetary consideration, sustainable society members still need honest means of subsistence.

What business models will replace those which lie near or in ruin? In comparison, eprivacy is a simple matter a 10-year-old can easily grasp.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ................. Executives and consultants fail the 10-year-old test, by Lucy Kellaway (Financial Times) - January 14, 2013
  • (**) ............... Poisoned air seeps from China's cloak of invisibility, by Jamil Anderlini (Financial Times) - January 18, 2013
  • (***) ............. Banker Says He Was Unaware of Doping, by Susanne Craig (New York Times) - January 18, 2013
  • (****) ........... What to Ask After Years of Denial, by Juliet Macur (New York Times) - January 17, 2013
  • (*****) ......... Invasion of the Data Snatchers, by Bill Keller (New York Times) - January 14, 2013
  • (******) ....... Mining Electronic Records for Revealing Health Data, by Peter Jaret (New York Times) - January 15, 2013
  • (*******) ..... Web Hunt for DNA Sequences Leaves Privacy Compromised, by Gina Kolata (New York Times) - January 18, 2013
  • (********) ... How President Obama's campaign used big data to rally individual voters,
    .......................... by Sasha Issenberg (MIT Technology Review) - January-February, 2013
  • (*********) . After 80 years, the unitary dream lives on, by Vanessa Houlder (Financial Times) - January 14, 2013
  • (added 1/23/13) Professor Rosenbloom modestly reports he was merely requoting an aphorism, attributed on the Web to essayist Henry Mencken
January 2013
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