Transition periods are the worst: technology, privacy and injunctions

Technology is disrupting privacy in a way that we can’t fight back from, will it all be easier once we just accept it?

Transitional times are the worst. Much like the music industry trying to retain their existing business model based on recorded music, or broadcasters using DRM to maintain rights windows on content that is transmitted in-the-clear; it’s always difficult to move on. Once you’ve accepted change, it might not be as easy as it was before, but you’re at least not fighting the inevitable.

We’re currently fighting that battle with privacy. As people tag us in Facebook, other people check us into insalubrious venues, we’re stuck in an ongoing battle to remove things that we don’t want stuck to our profile. We hide behind privacy settings on sites, only to watch a friend share a private RSS feed or one poorly-written API client leaking all the information to google. Our friends re-tweet from private accounts disclosing partially-incriminating thoughts. Strangers can sometimes see one-side of a conversation, not enough to know exactly what was said, but certainly enough for my mum to admonish me for some months ago.

Today we’ve had fun with super-injunctions, Twitter and parliamentary privilege. English courts trying to uphold rulings that Scotland and the Peoples’ Republic of Twitter are not subject to. And sure the identity of CTB is a nice bit of gossipy tittle-tattle, but what about when it’s the name of someone accused of a serious crime?

Our reporting restrictions are far more extensive than those of America, and while I don’t want to routinely have ‘perp-walks’ in the UK, I’d rather not have trials abandoned because our protections are unworkable in the modern world.

Away from the legal sphere, with the rise of computer vision and recognition projects, (look at the flurry of activity around the Kinect), and the availability of powerful on-demand computing resources (like GPU heavy instances from Amazon), privacy will soon be a problem that can be brute-forced away. Facebook is already rolling out photo recognition (this does seem to be taking longer than most of their phased roll-outs as I know a few people who had it months ago).

Embarrassing images we thought ‘anonymous’ because the face wasn’t shown will be tied down to people through bizarre combinations of EXIF tags, 3d room mapping, carpet recognition and host of other recognition metric that I can’t even imagine. That mole on your chest will no longer just be a minor cancer risk; it’s a data point that can be correlated.

Anyway, we’re in the transitional phase: We’re still trying to hold onto old-models of privacy which in a few years won’t be possible to have without moving to the “Google Opt-Out town“.

The other side of this transition we’ll probably have less privacy, but nobody will really have privacy, and somehow that will make it alright – that or we’ll have to change our names after we leave university, and dispose of all of our electrical devices, have that mole removed, and if we want to run for political office be very careful what we get up-to at college.