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June 11, 2008

Rainbows and Unicorns

Some topics just don’t lend themselves to optimism, I guess. And the tone of the Chicago dive, the final in our cycle of Security and Society discussions, was alternately productive and dour. Here's a quick glimpse of what we heard during the day:

“I’m struggling to find things I’m hopeful about,” said one participant.

“I’m not optimistic at all,” said another. “We’re facing a long-term crisis, and there is an abundance of blissful ignorance.”

“I know this conversation is supposed to be about rainbows and unicorns, but the Internet is horribly, horribly broken,” said yet another.

The good news (and there was precious little of it) was that nearly all of the dire predictions centered around privacy and the security of the Internet. How is that good news, you ask? Well, when we shifted our focus onto physical security issues – things like the protection of natural resources, border control, terrorism, etc. – there were some sunny statistics upon which to hang our collective hat.

Andrew Mack, the Director of the Human Security Report Project at the Simon Fraser University School for International Studies in Vancouver has a long list of data that supports the notion that, historically speaking, the planet is considerably more secure today than at any time. For example, the end of colonialism has created a more stable political environment. Likewise, the end of the Cold War has removed one of the largest sources of ideological tension and aggression from the global landscape. And globalization itself is building wealth in developing countries, increasing income per capita, and mitigating social unrest.

All in all, Mack reasons, we are in a good place. There have been sharp declines in political violence, global terrorism, and authoritarian states. Human nature is to worry. And as such, we often believe that the most dangerous times are the ones in which we live. Not true. Despite the many current and gathering threats to our near- and long-term security, we are in fact a safer, more secure global society.

Unfortunately, that was where the optimism ended. There was more attention being paid to gathering threats, in particular the future of privacy and the security of the Internet.  Not surprising, considering that the participants included two experts on identity theft (from the Identity Theft Resource Center, and Debix Identity Protection Network), one chief privacy officer (from Facebook), and the Information and Privacy Commissioner from the Province of Ontario.

In Chicago, we discussed many of the same privacy issues we’ve treated in previous dives. But one important point of progress was coming to an agreement on terms (which would have been useful to do in the first dive, but alas.) Part of the reason why the privacy debate raged on throughout all six of our deep dives on Security and Society is because if you ask twenty different people what privacy means, you are likely to get twenty different answers. But I think we may have found a definition that everyone can agree on. It’s something called “Informational Self-Determination,” a concept developed by the Germans during a census collection 25 years ago. It’s basically a fancy way of saying that individuals should have the right to decide what information about themselves should be communicated to others and under what circumstances.

If that sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because it’s the same basic principle that governs privacy in the physical world. It is also useful to understand what privacy is not. It is not the same thing as anonymity. It is not having the ability to choose your own identity. It is not the right to be left alone. In short, online privacy is no different than privacy in the physical world. Chris Kelly, Chief Privacy Officer at Facebook (a company this is widely, and wrongly, criticized for somehow being a threat to personal privacy) describes it best in the following video:


A ray of hope, perhaps? Maybe. But two things that quickly brought us crashing back to earth were a.) the privacy debate does not exist in the developing world, where they have quite the opposite problem, i.e. a complete dearth of personal data, which actually exacerbates security issues, and b.) none of this matters if the Internet itself is compromised, blown up, shut down, or otherwise rendered useless.

Though the final dive on Security and Society was not hopeful, it was instructive. And as we begin the process of digesting the many insights gleaned from the six deep dives, and fashion into a report, it’s important to understand that there are many challenges ahead, few easy answers, and much work to be done. In short, there are no rainbows and unicorns.

June 11, 2008 in Security and Society | Permalink


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It scares me that generally the tone is pessimistic about the internet's future. Especially dealing with the internet's security issues, it feels like it could be the end of the world. it's hard to believe that only 15 years ago the internet age was now starting up.

Posted by: swarovski crystal jewelry | Jun 16, 2008 6:41:15 PM

It is going to be interesting to watch the social networking battle unfold over the next few years. I think Chris Kelly has it on the money, it is about the conflict between anonymity and social responsibility. Right now, Facebook seems to be winning. Where I tend to differ from Kelly and others is in the position that an externally imposed, rules, web-form, and subscription, based strategy can be applied to produce reliable identity confirmation.

I think the active participation and support of the online community members themselves, and their willingness as individuals to share reliable identification information with each other, is what will be required.

Posted by: Tim R. | Sep 17, 2008 1:38:27 PM

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