Information is cheap, meaning is expensive. George Dyson

The Public-Private Distinction Does Not Work Anymore

Harry Lewis is a computer scientist at Harvard who has written extensively about the new paradoxes faced by Western societies in a digital age. He sat down with Cora Currier to talk about how new technology shapes identity formation and redefines our assumptions about ethics and political rights.

The European: Let’s talk about how digital technology is changing the nature of citizenship. We tend to focus on the democratizing, or even subversive applications of digital technology, but you often stress how it can threaten civil liberties.
Lewis: Here’s a case study. In Massachusetts, the state has offered to install license-plate reading cameras to the police forces, which they can use to create a database. Yes, they actually do help to solve crimes, but a lot of municipalities are having trouble deciding whether this is turning us into a police state, or whether the public safety benefits of this database outweigh the drawbacks. Here’s the problem that I have with the idea: anyone can buy one of these cameras, drive around, scan license plates, and build a set of information. Then they could crowd-source, get a lot of people doing this, and produce a large database. They still don’t know who these people are—that’s not public information. But we can crowd-source that too—just get people to walk up and down the street, see where they park, gradually accumulate all this data about where we all are, exactly the kind of data that law enforcement legitimately thinks is so useful. Ten years ago, you couldn’t technologically do this, but now you can because equipment is so cheap, and we have the social networking capabilities to spread the information. There’s a database where people do nothing but type in the serial numbers of dollar bills, just out of curiosity! So there’s all kinds of ways people will spend their time online. The effect of this disintermediation, the fact that ordinary people can do things that previously only people with a great deal of power could do, leaves us in a bind.

The European: It might not always be a bad thing to empower ordinary people, to chip away some of the monopoly of the state…
Lewis: There was a case in the supreme court in Washington state a few years ago, about whether the signatures on a legal petition should be public. Of course, they’ve always been “public” documents. But they never used to be public documents in the sense that someone could five minutes later be sitting in an Internet café in Islamabad seeing my name on that petition. The instantaneity, the low barriers to publication, means that they are really public. Democracy needs public engagement, and we don’t want to live in a country where everything happens behind closed doors. But there’s an argument that by exposing people in such a way that everyone in the world knows every time someone gathers around a political cause, that’s going to have an inhibiting effect on the democratic process in it’s own way. This is another case where it all worked better, or at least our understandings of how it worked, were formed at a time when there was a cost to information publication, transmission, and aggregation.

The European: You’ve written that there are very few technological barriers to data collection, but that there should perhaps be social barriers.
Lewis: There should be social inhibitions. Because there’s not an immediately evident legal way to go that doesn’t involve some infringement on free speech and rights to information. For example, in the U.S., nitrate fertilizer is a regulated substance because in large quantities it could be used for dangerous purposes. You can buy it if you only want a bag, but if you want a truckload, you’ve got give your name, address, and phone number. Is data going to be like that? Because there’s going to be an assumption that anyone who is accumulating that much of it can be up to no good?

The European: In many cases, though, at least in the U.S. and much of Europe, we’re not facing outright Orwellian surveillance, or situations like the Egyptian government turning off the internet. What we’ve got is a much more complex web of information sharing, in which all of us are complicit.
Harry Lewis: It’s Little Brotherism. I think there’s still plenty to worry about from governments in terms of surveillance and tracking. But I also worry that we’re doing it to each other. And more than that, we’re doing it to ourselves, just by the amount that we disclose, just by how hard it is to live our lives without leaving a digital trail.

The European: Can you blame us? It’s extremely difficult to opt-out of digital life.
Lewis: Largely unbeknownst to us, there’s sharing going on behind the scenes. Although we all know we live these public lives, we’ve been comforted by the idea that the various private parties that we deal with commercially don’t whisper behind our backs, and aggregate the info about us. And that’s no longer an assumption that you can make. The profile on each of us that’s held by some of the major data aggregators—companies nobody’s ever heard of. They’ve got enormous amounts of data, because they pull it together from all of these different sources and then they resell it to other companies.

The European: As information becomes so available that we call it free, it also becomes infinitely valuable.
Lewis: You have no idea what “They” know about, and it’s a very scary thought. A study done during the Bush-Kerry election in 2004 merged photos of the candidates with elements of voter’s own images, and it drastically impacted which candidate they chose. Not one person noticed that they weren’t seeing the actual Bush or Kerry; it’s extremely subliminal. Given the importance of advertising in the world and especially Internet economy, if your image could influence your behavior even slightly, imagine how valuable it would be to advertisers. They can pull your image off one of the hundred of photos of you that may be online. My face is not necessarily private, but now it has become potentially a very valuable commodity.

The European: How do you propose regulating this “behind-the-scenes activity”?
Lewis: Well, we’ve got these stupid “terms and conditions:” hundreds of pages of tiny print detailing what you are agreeing to in your online life. And maybe you actually just want to buy those running shoes—you don’t want to hire a lawyer to read this thing! So no one ever reads those agreements. The notice and consent paradigm is worthless. Certainly, some simplification of those terms is possible, but there’s really very little competitive force at work there. No one knows that one company’s privacy agreement is better than another’s, or has the time to find out. I think the only real solution for the long run is education: teaching kids to think critically about the information they give and are given.

The European: Are there certain things that will become non-issues for a generation raised in this digital information era? Or, will we have a problem where technology has become so intuitive, so user-friendly, that we have people who are completely competent with new technology, but have no idea how it actually works?
Lewis: Your last question is a really good one. I got into the computer field in the 1960s, and from the very beginning, we tried to create metaphors on the screen. A slider that you push up and down, rather than typing in 1-2-3-4. Something that looks mechanical, rather than electrical. But the metaphors were so imperfect that anyone who used computers was under no illusions about whether they were interacting with a computer or interacting with reality. Now, the artificial world has become so perfected that people really do lose themselves in it. So what’s the worry about children growing up with total immersion in these technologies? I worry that they won’t learn to read and think deeply, to analyze and argue deeply. I’m also afraid that people are going to be stuck with the identities their family culture has given them. It is harder to get separated from the here and now. Everyone is constantly being pulled back to the latest updates. Social connectedness is a wonderful thing, and I suppose it would be fun to know what my elementary school classmates are up to, but it actually was not a bad thing that I left them all behind at some point to become who I am.

The European: That’s interesting, because usually you hear the opposite that the anonymity and reach of the Internet is freeing, and allows for agency in identity formation.
Lewis: I don’t know. The identity formation process is different now because you can’t so easily get away from your friends, your parents, the culture you came from. It’s true, you can join communities that you never even dreamed existed—imagine the gay kid in rural Kansas who finds friendship online—so there is a certain sense in which escape is possible but its not clear to me that that’s going to be the main mode for the future. Think about it—what if that kid’s parents have spyware software on his laptop, and they know exactly what he’s doing? There is a way in which the technology risks enforcing existing tendencies, and actually acting as a conservative force.

The European: Technological changes affect the assumptions behind our political definitions.
Lewis: The public-private distinction doesn’t really work anymore. Maybe all this exposure will just make us all better behaved, more law-abiding. But one of the roles that privacy has always played in society is to provide a safe zone for social innovation. Ideas that were unpopular in the dominant culture but which eventually became normalized started off among small groups of people. I think that there is a risk posed to social progress. We may lose something if everybody gets pulled back to the norm too quickly because it’s all happening in public view. That’s my larger social worry. Technology is tremendously empowering for small movements, but it also empowers even more the authority figures, be they parents, or government officials, or society at large.


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