Your Right to Privacy vs. Innovation

There are many arguments for and against your right to privacy. Made by everyone from governments to corporations and private citizens. I only care to reiterate one of these points: once you give it up you're never getting it back.

To be clear this is not a post arguing for or against your right to privacy. It's important and it needs to be protected.

alt

Instead, let's talk innovation vs. privacy and a strategic middle ground for protecting your privacy while enabling innovation. It's no secret that with the right data even existing technologies like Apple’s Siri or Google's Google Now can simply be an extension of your thinking and complement your life almost like magic.

Most of our lives are already tied to the internet. Facebook itself has collected over 300 petabytes of personal data as of 2014. Whether it's your social network, things you buy, the information you've looked up at specific times of the day, your location history, information from your fitness tracker, photos and videos. A pattern of at least part of who you are is already sitting sprawled across a collection of servers – online.

Now imagine putting all of it together. Combined with information like your credit and medical history can become an extremely powerful profile of who you are and what you do. Then imagine something like an artificially intelligent assistant having access to that information?

It'll know when to order you a pizza, to arrange a party with your friends, manage your calendar, order the right groceries online, pay your bills, play the right music at just the right times, do your taxes and more...

alt

First impression – it wouldn't be that straightforward, at least from a privacy standpoint. Yes, companies already collect a lot of information about you that play a major role in our economy – everything from making mission critical business decisions to insurance and some government policies rely on a certain level of access to the personal information of its population. But it's a scary thought to put all the information together in one place and let anyone (or thing) have access to it.

At a fundamental level personal privacy gives people a chance to improve themselves. Mistakes can be brushed off, governments can't surveil you for crimes you might commit and your boss won't know you're 50% less productive today because you were out drinking last night.

Now if we were a perfect society maybe, just maybe, zero privacy could go well. But given human nature and private agendas; definitely not. In fact, this line of thinking is unproductive, simply because it's too risky a path to go down.

Is 'online' ever safe?

Data protection goes hand in hand with privacy protection. Most companies, internet businesses in particular, are already holding onto a lot of information about you.

All these companies also take serious steps to make sure your information is protected. But it's no doubt that anyone motivated can and will eventually get to it. Consider the Yahoo hack that compromised over a billion user accounts in 2013 – the largest data breach in history. Or consider any one of these everyday services that have been breached at some point: DropBox, Evernote, Ebay, LinkedIn and more! Just take a look at this timeline.

Given the nature of computer systems and the internet, it's possible to get to any information stored anywhere, especially if you're targeted.

So would it ever be possible to break through this barrier?

On the most part, this post is a result of some research for a concept personal AI – something that had unrestricted access to every bit of your life so it could complement you perfectly. I'm sure at least the techies reading this will appreciate how awesome this could be. But given the privacy roadblocks, it's going to be a while (or never) before any entity is ever trusted with that level of access to your private information.

As I see it there are two ways to achieve this without infringing your personal privacy.

An isolated system or device, hosted by the individual using this AI. It could be an open source project that you personally setup for yourself. No third party access to your information. Call it your own, private Jarvis.

Or, a novel framework for gathering, transporting, storing and retrieving this type of personal information. Ideally, a framework that can fulfill the purpose of the information without really holding onto all your personal information. A decentralized approach to privacy where instead of any single company or entity holding your personal information it's randomly and securely distributed across a network (like Bitcoin) and services (third parties) are given access (by you) to processed information instead of raw data. This is discussed in depth by Guy Zyskind, Oz Nathan and Alex Pentland on their paper – Decentralizing Privacy: Using Blockchain to Protect Personal Data. It's definitely an interesting approach to balancing the innovation vs. privacy dilemma.

Middle ground?

There is no middle ground. At least none where you don't have to give up some or all of your privacy. But, what you could do instead is to take a completely novel approach to privacy as discussed in the paper referenced above: where you own your own personal data and give services permission (that you can revoke anytime) to access certain processed pieces of information.

It's a good balance of making your information available to fuel innovative technologies like AI personal assistants while maintaining healthy control over your personal information.

Did you find this article useful?
I write regularly about design, science, tech and all things I find interesting. Get my essays delivered right to your inbox by subscribing.