Friction

In a tumbler post R highlights a quote from Lawrence Lessig’s book Free Culture.

“Think about privacy. Before the Internet, most of us didn’t have to worry much about data about our lives that we broadcast to the world. If you walked into a bookstore and browsed through some of the works of Karl Marx, you didn’t need to worry about explaining your browsing habits to your neighbors or boss. The “privacy” of your browsing habits was assured.

What made it assured?

[Y]our privacy was assured because of an inefficient architecture for gathering data and hence a market constraint (cost) on anyone who wanted to gather that data. If you were a suspected spy for North Korea, working for the CIA, no doubt your privacy would not be assured. But that’s because the CIA would (we hope) find it valuable enough to spend the thousands required to track you. But for most of us (again, we can hope), spying doesn’t pay. The highly inefficient architecture of real space means we all enjoy a fairly robust amount of privacy. That privacy is guaranteed to us by friction. Not by law (there is no law protecting “privacy” in public places), and in many places, not by norms (snooping and gossip are just fun), but instead, by the costs that friction imposes on anyone who would want to spy.

Enter the Internet, where the cost of tracking browsing in particular has become quite tiny. If you’re a customer at Amazon, then as you browse the pages, Amazon collects the data about what you’ve looked at. You know this because at the side of the page, there’s a list of”recently viewed” pages. Now, because of the architecture of the Net and the function of cookies on the Net, it is easier to collect the data than not. The friction has disappeared, and hence any “privacy” protected by the friction disappears, too.

Amazon, of course, is not the problem. But we might begin to worry about libraries. If you’re one of those crazy lefties who thinks that people should have the “right” to browse in a library without the government knowing which books you look at (I’m one of those lefties, too), then this change in the technology of monitoring might concern you. If it becomes simple to gather and sort who does what in electronic spaces, then the friction-induced privacy of yesterday disappears.

It is this reality that explains the push of many to define “privacy” on the Internet. It is the recognition that technology can remove what friction before gave us that leads many to push for laws to do what friction did. And whether you’re in favor of those laws or not, it is the pattern that is important here. We must take affirmative steps to secure a kind of freedom that was passively provided before. A change in technology now forces those who believe in privacy to affirmatively act where, before, privacy was given by default”

….

In the past interacting in the physical world was “private by default” and “public through effort” whereas, on the Internet, the reverse is true: What we do is “public by default” and “private through effort.”

Our point is that with wearable’s and the internet of things the physical world also becomes “public by default” and “private through effort.” unless we actively work to replace friction by law and by norms.

At STC we suggest that norms such as

  • Routinely taking off, turning off or putting your device in private mode when entering an enclosed public space.
  • Taking off, turning off or putting your device in private mode when having a conversation.
  • Never running biometrics on people without permission.
  • Asking before recording people.
  • Asking before sharing data about anyone or storing data about anyone.

are the best place to start.