Techies, Newbies and the Preservation of Privacy

No sooner had I submitted my May 30, 2016 “Facebook Fallibility—Algorithms vs. Judgement vs. Ourselves” BlogInfoSec column about Facebook having used newbies to select items for “Trending Topics” than Jim Rutenberg published an article, “Facebook’s Troubling One-Way Mirror,” on the front page of the Business Day section in the May 23, 2016 issue of The New York Times. The article remarks about “how much of yourself you [are] giving over to [Facebook] … for an admittedly magical level of connectivity …?”

First, let us make the clear distinction between two categories of personal data: the first is commonly-termed NPPI (nonpublic personal information) or PII (personally-identifiable information) which is about who you are; the second is information about what you do, where and when you do it, and how you go about doing it—in other words your time-stamped geo-located activities.

NPPI, which commonly includes name, Social Security number, driver’s license number, date of birth, country of origin, and the like, are used for identification and authentication purposes. When your identity is confirmed, you are then permitted to perform certain activities, such as open and use bank and brokerage accounts. Compromises of NPPI can, and often do, result in identity theft and account takeover and subsequent fraud. It is unconscionable that not only is so much of this sensitive information freely posted on the Internet by so-called responsible companies, but also that even more sensitive details can be acquired by anyone for a small fee.

Activity information is generally used by companies, such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon, to generate revenue through targeted advertising and marketing. Non-attributable activity data can usually be used freely for the type of market research that offers broad guidance for where companies should invest their marketing dollars. This use is relatively innocuous, assuming that it doesn’t lead to being able to identify specific individuals. However, with advanced analytics, it is becoming easier to de-anonymize non-attributable data by narrowing down potential subjects using the huge data stores available through the likes of consumer database giant Axciom.

If the appropriate distinction among the various categories of personal is not made, then we are at risk of overprotecting some less sensitive information (e.g., most online purchases) while, at the same time, underprotecting other more sensitive data (e.g., NPPI).

Jean-Pierre Hubaux and Ari Juels wrote an interesting article with the title “Privacy is Dead, Long Live Privacy” (Communications of the ACM, Vol. 59 No. 6, Pages 39-41) … abstract available at; ACM membership needed for full text. In this article, the authors state that: “There is no reason to think of privacy as we conceive it today as an enduring feature of life.”

The authors list four major trends that provide “the means, motive, and opportunity for the assault on privacy,” namely:

  • Pervasive data collection
  • Monetization (greed) [sic.]
  • Adaptation and apathy
  • Secret judgment

They derive from these that “we should prepare for the possibility of a post-confidentiality world.” I tend to agree with the authors but think that it is less of a “possibility” and more a certainty. They conclude that: “If we cannot win the privacy game definitively, we need to defend paths to an equitable society.” This appears to me to be giving up on privacy, and I don’t subscribe to that.

Rather we need to define what we want to achieve and push for the means of achieving these goals, as I describe in my ISACA Journal (Volume 4, 2016) online article, “The New Age of Near-zero Privacy” … full text available to ISACA members. In the article I conclude that “… [achieving privacy] will not work unless the legal, political and social acceptance and the will to gain control of the current runaway situation are there.” This is no time to back down,

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