30 September, 2014

Saving Face and the threats to privacy in our society

I'm not talking about the 2012 documentary, nor an actual face. I want to discuss the expression, as defined by wikitionary:
"To take an action or make a gesture intended to preserve one's reputation or honour"
I argue that this expression is under-used in this day and age of privacy violations.
Awesomeness from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal!

Privacy is not

Tech folk like me were surprised at the publicity around the leak of celebrity nudes a few weeks ago. With the continuous string of NSA scandals over the last years, we didn't expect anybody to still think their data was safe online. Apparently, we still have to make the argument for privacy...

For many people, privacy and the arguments against NSA style "collect it all" spying seem moot: "I have nothing to hide".

Now this argument has been solidly debunked in various articles, breaking down to these main reasons:
  • You don't know what you have to hide
  • You should have something to hide
  • Privacy is a basic human need
On the first two, security researcher Moxie Marlinspike wrote for Wired Magazine.

You don't know what you have to hide

In the US, the federal government can't even count the number of laws one can break, and Moxie argues:
If the federal government had access to every email you’ve ever written and every phone call you’ve ever made, it’s almost certain that they could find something you’ve done which violates a provision in the 27,000 pages of federal statues or 10,000 administrative regulations. You probably do have something to hide, you just don’t know it yet.

A society with perfect surveillance means anybody could be locked up at any time as everybody does things wrong all the time. Law enforcement becomes arbitrary (and consequently a great means for controlling people who do things the government doesn't like). Just one recent example: in Washington, being smelly is a crime.

Moxie does not even discuss changes in policy and politics. What is legal today can haunt you tomorrow! This is not a hypothetical situation: in World War II tens of thousands lost their lives because the Dutch government kept extensive records on every citizen.

You should have something to hide

The second point is that if laws were never broken, they would never be changed and progress of society would come to a stand-still. In a world of perfect law enforcement, slavery would still be with us, sodomy laws would be in effect and women wouldn't be allowed to run businesses or perhaps even drive cars. Probably nice for bureaucratic governments (things are simpler that way) but I don't think it is wise to limit the world our kids live in based on what we can deal with and understand today...

Despite their very real impact, these arguments, to many of us, seem mostly relevant around an oppressive regime. We're happy that the protests in Hong Kong are aided by techology but it doesn't make us use them.

Privacy is a basic human need

Then there is the argument that people need privacy. Not because they do illegal things, but just because. The often-heard explanation: when you go to the toilet, you close the door. Not because you do something illegal there, but just because you'd prefer doing it alone!

This might not feel like a strong argument, perhaps that is why Moxie doesn't mention it. But it goes far deeper than the other reasons for privacy, to something very central to us, human animals. Everybody feels a need to present themselves well to others! We use make-up, proper clothes, perfume and deodorant. We act and speak careful, ever mindful of the impression we leave on people. And privacy is central to control over how others see you.
Marying as WoW character

Saving face

Words like reputation and honour in the definition of "saving face" by wikitionary make it sound like a big, special thing, but it is true for everybody, every day: we all go through extraordinary length to control how others see us. It is why we carefully choose the clothes we wear and the car we drive. We even wear different faces around different people. Loving husband or wife, funny friend, hard working employee, trusted confidant, sensitive and dedicated son, powerful wizard.

We are careful to keep these separate. If one of your parents would suffer from cancer, you would share the pain with close friends, but not the poker friends at the bar. You'd share that you had to deal with a burn-out a few years ago with your husband, but not your colleagues. If you lose your job you keep up appearances to some friends, but share your feelings with others. You would tell at work about your kid puking over you at breakfast but not about your wife who suffers from depression.

The carefully build impressions others have of us are maintained at almost all costs, and we don't even realize it. It is more obvious in some situations, of course - when something bad happens to you but you don't want some group of people to know; or, typically, when dating or soliciting for a job, when you put up your best, cleanest face and present yourself as perfect as you can. Or when you get very upset when certain information (private pictures, habits or hobbies) become public. But you always care about your appearance.

Losing control?

Modern social media are putting a bit of a wrench in this form of social engineering we all engage in. A date or potential employer can look us up on the internet, finding out things we'd rather not share. And if the data isn't available openly, they can probably just pay for it. Awareness of this is still rather low but, like the Silicon Valley folks keep their kids from using computers and even send them to analog schools, many tech people I know are far more careful with their online profile than the average consumer, who happily takes the free data storage for uploading their lives to servers in the cloud.

There is a time factor at work here. This technology arrived when my generation was (mostly) old and wise enough not to put too much embarrassing stuff online. But just think of everything you did before you turned 18 - I don't know about you, dear reader, but I sure don't want that online. Yet this is exactly what the current and future generations face! Why else are tools which promise to delete your data after a short time, like Snapchat and friends, so popular - and why else do people get so upset when the promises about deleting data are broken?

Because they are being broken, and will continue to be, either by the companies themselves (your data is worth more than you think!) and by governments, hackers and so on.

I think it is important to realize how a lack of privacy impact us, as humans. In the end, it might be the most important argument: in this digital age, we lose the abilities to control how we present ourselves to others. Time to take back our data and decentralize.

EDIT: some news that came out one day after my blog post prompted some further thoughts.