On Privacy

I’ve conducted a long debate about online privacy in the pages of today’s Observer, with Oxford research fellow and security expert Joss Wright. It’s an in-depth discussion that has attracted lots of comments. I’ve pasted a brief extract from one of my responses below; click through to read the whole thing on the Guardian site.

Dear Joss,

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you write that, by sharing data, we are shaping the future of our society in ways that cannot be predicted. How, then, can we mitigate against the worst consequences of trends we can scarcely envisage?

If recent economic history suggests anything, it’s that humans are poor at risk assessment. Can we hope to comprehend these risks until at least some of us have experienced them in their worst form? Quite possibly not – not least because of the intuition-defying divide between the daily delights of social networking and its potential repercussions.

While it’s difficult to disagree with your call for education and effective protections, then, I find myself worrying about another set of unintended consequences: that we risk polarising a vital debate into paralysis, rather than facing up to the knotty human issues feeding it.

I’m not sure how helpful it is, for example, to lump the perspectives of most large technology companies together under the banner “privacy is dead”. Clearly, there’s a lot of money being made today – and much of it with breathtaking cynicism – by extracting as much personal information as possible from the eager and the unwitting, as well as from the eager and well-informed.

It’s also increasingly clear, however, that granting and respecting privacy of various kinds is becoming a vital part of most business strategies reliant on users’ goodwill, attention and effort – for all its faults, Google placed particular emphasis on this in creating Google+ – and that many of the most worrying trends taking place across the digital world are born more from corporate ignorance than malice…

[Read the whole exchange on the Guardian website]