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                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #29      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates       October 17, 1996
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Editor's note
    *** Privacy in an age of data (part 2) (Stephen L. Talbott)
          The balance between public spaces and private places
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's note

    The perfect prolog to the main essay in this issue conveniently came my way recently. It's a brief excerpt from a Harper's magazine interview with Kurt Vonnegut, from November, 1995:

    I work at home, and if I wanted to, I could have a computer right by my bed, and I'd never have to leave it. But I use a typewriter, and afterward I mark up the pages with a pencil. Then I call up a woman named Carol out in Woodstock and say, "Are you still doing typing?" Sure she is, and her husband is trying to track bluebirds out there and not having much luck, and so we chitchat back and forth, and I say, "Okay, I'll send you the pages." Then I go downstairs and my wife calls, "Where are you going?"

    "Well," I say, "I'm going out to buy an envelope."

    And she says, "You're not a poor man. Why don't you buy a thousand envelopes? They'll deliver them, and you can put them in the closet and get one whenever you want."

    And I say, "Hush." So I go to the newsstand across the street where they sell magazines and lottery tickets and stationery. I have to get in line because there are people buying candy and all that sort of thing, and I talk to them. The woman behind the counter has a jewel between her eyes, and when it's my turn, I ask her if there have been any big winners lately. I get my envelope and put the pages in it and seal it up and go to the postal convenience center down the block at the corner of Forty-Seventh Street and Second Avenue, where I'm secretly in love with the woman behind the counter.

    I keep absolutely poker-faced; I never let her know how I feel about her.

    One time I had my pocket picked in there and I got to meet a cop and tell him about it. Anyway, I address the envelope and mail it in a mailbox in front of the post office, and I go home. And I've had a hell of a good time.

    I tell you, we are here on earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you any different.

    It's a lesson worth learning. More to the point of the following essay, there may be no privacy in a world where most of us haven't yet learned it.


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    *** Privacy in an age of data (part 2)

    From Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    [This was to be the second of a two-part series. But after finishing part 1, I made the mistake of picking up my three-decades-old copy of Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Part 2 immediately took a back seat--and became part 3. Jacobs offers vivid reinforcement of both original parts of the article, and was just too good to pass up.]

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Steven Miller, in Civilizing Cyberspace, defines privacy as "the power of information self-determination." By "self-determination" he presumably does not refer to information's choices, but rather to ours. But his accidental mis-phrasing carries its own profound meaning. For as we dissolve into bits of data, the informational system does carry out its own determinations according to the logic of its necessary global interactions.

    The more coherent and insistent this logic of the informational system becomes--and it is becoming very insistent with the advent of embedded computers in cars, toll booths, packages, credit cards, grocery carts, telephones, and so on--to that same extent the concern for privacy tends to shift away from ensuring legitimate uses of information by those who reasonably have access to it, and toward making the information unavailable in the first place. The potential distribution of information is simply too great, too instantaneous, and too uncertain to allow much confidence in the efficacy of community standards for its use. There is no community there--certainly not one that can respectfully "contain" the information. So anonymous transactions become the ideal. As Audrie Krause writes in NetAction No. 5 (Oct. 10, 1996):

    In general, then, why is privacy so important? Because, in an age of increasing vulnerability, privacy acts as our security cushion. Most opponents of privacy regulations support themselves on the false premise that if someone is not being hurt (coerced, prejudiced, re-victimized, robbed, denied access, etc.), then privacy does not matter. The issue for privacy advocates, however, is not whether we are being violated, it's whether we can be violated. Privacy is preventive.
    A preventive stance may be necessary, but we need to realize that it is also symptomatic of a battle being lost. A simple analogy might help. Most of us are daily in positions where someone could easily walk up to us, pull a gun or knife, and kill us. In many (though by no means all) social environments, we don't worry about that, and the crime rarely occurs. We are "exposed," so to speak, but the mores of society are such, and the threat of immediate retribution to the criminal sufficiently strong, that it turns out not to be a risky exposure.

    On the other hand, when the risk of the crime becomes too great, we have little choice but to minimize our exposure. As a society we may then start conceiving the challenge as a wholly technical one--how to wall ourselves off from each other, devise new alarm systems, beef up police forces, and so on. Again, some actions of this sort may be necessary, but we must realize that they are signs of a losing battle and may actually worsen the underlying causes of the problems. The decisive question is whether we can complement any such steps with other actions that attack the problems at their source.

    Anyone who wants to pursue these matters should read Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She makes vividly clear how to create a crime-ridden district: put barriers between people by any means available--freeways, homogeneous business districts, inadequate transportation systems; create urban canyons of concrete and steel that become uninhabited after business hours; discourage a continued mixing by people from different classes, ethnic backgrounds, trades, age groups, and so on; and, in general, minimize the routine, mutual exposure of people in conducting all of life's business.

    Jacobs describes wonderful urban areas where safety is both taken for granted and well enforced. Interestingly, in such environments the fact that people are continually noticing each other and looking out for each other goes hand in hand with respect for privacy. Jacobs cites the anthropologist Elena Padilla regarding a "poor and squalid" Puerto Rican district of New York City. In this district people know a great deal about each other just as a matter of public character--who can be trusted, who is defiant of the law, who is competent. "These things are known from the public life of the sidewalk and its associated enterprises." But at the same time only a highly select group is permitted to drop into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. "It is not considered dignified for everyone to know one's affairs."

    Jacobs continues:

    A good city street neighborhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people's determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around. This balance is largely made up of small, sensitively managed details, practiced and accepted so casually that they are normally taken for granted.

    Perhaps I can best explain this subtle but all-important balance in terms of the stores where people leave keys for their friends, a common custom in New York. In our family, for example, when a friend wants to use our place while we are away for a week end or everyone happens to be out during the day, or a visitor for whom we do not wish to wait up is spending the night, we tell such a friend that he can pick up the key at the delicatessen across the street. Joe Cornacchia, who keeps the delicatessen, usually has a dozen or so keys at a time for handing out like this. He has a special drawer for them.

    Now why do I, and many others, select Joe as a logical custodian for keys? Because we trust him, first, to be a responsible custodian, but equally important because we know that he combines a feeling of good will with a feeling of no personal responsibility about our private affairs. Joe considers it no concern of his whom we choose to permit in our places and why.

    Then comes the zinger so far as today's privacy debates are concerned:
    A service like this cannot be formalized. Identifications ... questions ... insurance against mishaps. The all-essential line between public service and privacy would be transgressed by institutionalization. Nobody in his right mind would leave his key in such a place. The service must be given as a favor by someone with an unshakable understanding of the difference between a person's key and a person's private life, or it cannot be given at all.
    Lest you think that Jacobs is addressing the current, technology-centered debate, be aware that she wrote those words in 1961. But she is addressing some of the issues we must tackle. What she is saying is important enough to warrant further quotation:
    Or consider the line drawn by Mr. Jaffe at the candy store around our corner--a line so well understood by his customers and by other storekeepers too that they can spend their whole lives in its presence and never think about it consciously. One ordinary morning last winter, Mr. Jaffe, whose formal business name is Bernie, and his wife, whose formal business name is Ann, supervised the small children crossing at the corner on the way to P.S. 41, as Bernie always does because he sees the need; lent an umbrella to one customer and a dollar to another; took custody of two keys; took in some packages for people in the next building who were away; lectured two youngsters who asked for cigarettes; gave street directions; took custody of a watch to give the repairman across the street when he opened later; gave out information on the range of rents in the neighborhood to an apartment seeker; listened to a tale of domestic difficulty and offered reassurance; told some rowdies they could not come in unless they behaved, and defined (and got) good behavior; provided an incidental forum for half a dozen conversations among customers who dropped in for oddments; set aside certain newly arrived papers and magazines for regular customers who would depend on getting them; advised a mother who came for a birthday present not to get the ship-model kit because another child going to the same birthday party was giving that; and got a back copy (this was for me) of the previous day's newspaper out of the deliverer's surplus returns when he came by.
    Jacobs once asked Mr. Jaffe, "Do you ever introduce your customers to each other?" "No," came the thoughtful reply. "That would just not be advisable." This, Jacobs observes, is the well-balanced line "between the city public world and the world of privacy."
    This line can be maintained without awkwardness to anyone, because of the great plenty of opportunities for public contact in the enterprises along the sidewalks, or on the sidewalks themselves as people move to and fro or deliberately loiter when they feel like it, and also because of the presence of many public hosts, so to speak, proprietors of meeting places like Bernie's where one is free either to hang around or dash in and out, no strings attached.
    There is, then--at least on the streets of this healthy neighborhood in East Harlem--a vital balance between public exposure and personal privacy, between having to do with each other in manifold ways and leaving each other respectfully alone, between building a public environment of trust and enjoying, within that secure environment, one's private circle.

    Jacobs is describing only one particular sort of urban community, and certainly is not suggesting that the detailed conditions of such a community can be carried over to radically different environments. But the burden of proof, I think, is upon anyone who suggests that the virtues of privacy (or safety) can be enjoyed in a "community" of barricaded individuals who rely centrally upon nonexposure and anonymity for their protection. What one gets is not a community where privacy is honored, but rather the destruction of community altogether. Then privacy has no meaning.

    Privacy, after all, is scarcely relevant to the individual living behind a chainlink fence. It can be a concern and a value only where we present ourselves to each other. The "space" we ask for when we ask for privacy, is a space fashioned within and defended by a respectful community. There is no other enduring defense.

    The problem is that by the time we have reached a point where data protection has become a major issue, we have mostly abandoned the public spaces as venues for doing business. The automatic teller machine has none of the community virtues of Joe Cornacchia, and it displaces several settings where such virtues might have taken root. Where, then, can the complex values required for privacy be nurtured?

    Issues of personal respect don't arise between bundles of data, nor between information processing programs. Data and programs are not caught up in the kind of street life Jacobs describes, and they do not have "respect me" written all over them in the way that people do. They do not inhabit public spaces. Within the global information system every piece of data is perilously close to being globally exposed, and there is no local "community of data" to play a buffering and protecting role. Therefore privacy advocates are, with good reason, trying to write "it's none of your business" all over every data bundle.

    But we should realize that this technical protection, necessary though it may be, has little positive relation to any privacy truly conceived. Moreover, it readily contributes to the depersonalization of transactions, thereby further reducing the public spaces where respect for privacy can grow. This is why technologies like public key cryptography, biometric encryption, and digital pseudonyms offer us ambiguous hope at best.

    The idea of the pseudonym, for example, is that online data is never traceable to anyone in particular; it is traceable only to a pseudonym. But in order for that to work, there must be no final "giveaway" of the user's identity. The recipient of a product or service must present himself--pseudonymously--to the teller machine or delivery box or whatever. Post offices or other depots would have to be redesigned to support this absolute anonymity. Where, in Jacobs' neighborhood, watching after each other on the street was a virtue, the near approach of someone else in this new world of anonymity is a threat. Is that person trying to read my pin number?

    If privacy is to emerge as a meaningful public value, it will be in the context of community involvement. Where else can we learn what needs respecting about each other, if not from a knowledge of the other person in particular and of the requirements of a healthily functioning community in general?

    It is possible--although it will be a tremendous stretch--for us to extend our gestures of human respect to the abstract, placeless, and timeless data representations of other people. But it isn't conceivable that we will succeed in this greater challenge while failing the lesser and more familiar one. We cannot--as programmers, application users, corporate employees, consumers--enlarge our respect for persons to embrace data when we are forgetting what respect for persons means in the first place. The delicate balance Jacobs describes in the public life of the sidewalk cannot be lightly manufactured; it grows up in real places, among real presences.

    In other words, flesh-and-blood contexts remain the primary schools from which we can try to reach out more widely with our human sympathies. Here's a simple principle to consider: if you are clearing the way for a new form of data transaction, or proposing some new mechanism for data privacy, then spend at least three times as much effort working toward a means for strengthening community outside these data contexts. Otherwise, you may well be helping to destroy the essential milieu for any privacy worth having.

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    There are ways to strengthen public spaces in the face of the growing flood of anonymous transactions. I will try to illustrate these in the next installment, with examples from my own, decidedly non-urban environment. Most importantly, to my mind, these examples will show how the reduction of ourselves to data is at least partly a choice we make--and not always a healthy choice. We can choose otherwise.

    Go to part 1 of privacy article
    Go to part 3 of privacy article

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    *** About this newsletter

    Copyright 1996 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached.

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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #29 :: October 17, 1996

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