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Off Deadline: Is 'privacy' dead, or dying, in the age of Twitter?

The battle over online privacy

It has long been known that those who live in small villages have little or no privacy. Everyone knows everyone else's business.

Welcome to the Global Village, the once-idealistic positive vision for the electronic future that is now upon us in virtually, so to speak, every facet of our lives.

It has brought along a dark side of village life, as many individuals and politicians have discovered, with Julian Assange of Wikileaks being one of the chief village gossips -- and not always with clear or benevolent motive, as with the village gossips of old.

Today even those of us in big cities and expansive communities-of-interest feel the impact of loss of personal privacy, sometimes with costly, life-altering results, as in online identity theft, financial fraud, outright robbery or damaged reputations.

The current national political campaign shows how easy it is, for someone with either malicious or benevolent intent, to hack emails. Are we now engaged in a Cyber Cold War with Russia?

The Wikileaks revelations leave me wondering why Democratic campaign officials were so careless in emails. This doesn't relate to anything classified or secret, just to off-the-cuff chatter, personal views -- everything, in short.

Did they not know that whatever's sent online is potential fodder for news, gossip and scandal? That whatever goes online might as well be carved in stone? Each message passes through servers that have multiple backups and varied security. Short of a galactic-size erasure, everything on the internet will be lurking around somewhere forever.

This isn't breaking news.

In 1991, I was asked by my friend Jim Warren, then of Woodside, to handle media relations for a conference he was planning to hold on the topic of "Computers, Freedom & Privacy." It soon became known as CFP1, as others followed at two-year intervals. Warren, a former math teacher, earlier founded the West Coast Computer Faire, one of the first of its kind. The faire, a raging success, made Warren rich, or modestly so by today's Silicon Valley standards.

Warren knew virtually all the originators of the technological revolution, and convened a group of about 40 friends and contacts to help plan CFP1. I was between newspapers at the time and renting a room from Warren at his mountaintop dwelling.

I was impressed by the diversity of members, who ranged from academics to a libertarian and from known hackers to a deputy district attorney who had prosecuted one of the early hacking cases.

I also noted the negative attitude many had toward the press, primarily because most coverage then focused on (1) the potential for online crime and (2) the potential for use of the internet for sexual purposes. True, of course.

They were angry that the press seemed ignorant of the deeper meaning of the still-fledgling technological revolution, and some looked at my presence with suspicion, due to my then-20-plus-year career in practicing (and some teaching of) journalism. A few didn't want journalists to be invited.

I responded that the reason the media focused on crime and sex is because of ignorance. Most journalists, reporters and editors alike, were barely out of the typewriter age into desktop computers. The new gizmos were considered by many to be simply more efficient typewriters that even helped set type for publications.

I argued that journalists needed to be informed/educated about both the vast potential and real dangers of the new technologies. So we invited journalists from about everywhere, and nearly a hundred showed up.

CFP1 was also notable for its open format, where time was built in for people from different organizations and with different points of view to discuss the issues. Thus an FBI official was meeting with a computer-freedom advocate, a convicted hacker/cracker had lunch with the deputy district attorney who prosecuted him, a CIA analyst dropped by the press room to chat.

But as years passed and amazing new devices hit the mass market privacy concerns faded. Concerns were simply overwhelmed with this brave new world of magical gadgetry.

Today, Warren believes the privacy battle is lost, "at least in the USA, and probably most of the rest of the non-European world. The EU is TRYING to impose some privacy protections, but it IS hard. All the more so in that so many of us have so widely OPENED our 'personal' information to public access -- notably via the 'social' (?!) networking."

There is a massive imbalance in the public's desire for privacy and the intense, consistent lobbying for access to personal information by government and business interests.

"The demand for privacy is a mile wide and a millimeter deep," Warren said. And, he added, the desire for access to information is essentially incompatible with privacy: "To the extent we have one we lose the other." Social Security numbers are long gone.

What can an individual do? Warren has for decades advocated encryption programs for just about everything relating to the internet. But that's inconvenient and exceeds the millimeter-deep concern.

Otherwise, especially for financial accounts, change passwords regularly "and use non-trivial passwords." And never open email attachments or applications ("apps") from anyone you don't know for sure sent the email.

For anyone interested in delving more deeply into what can be done, there are still-active privacy warriors. One is Lauren Weinstein, based in Los Angeles but nationally known for his four decades of involvement. He co-founded People For Internet Responsibility and the Network Neutrality Squad, and in 1992 founded the "PRIVACY Forum."

He is quoted regularly in the media on policy and engineering issues related to the internet, privacy, the interaction of technology with society and other areas, and has consulted with Google on privacy matters.

The privacy battle "hasn't been lost," he said by email this week. "But we must choose our friends carefully (that includes personal and corporate), so to speak."

A great way to catch up with the privacy frontlines is to check out his website (vortex.com/lauren) and his blog (https://lauren.vortex.com/).

And, yes, protect yourself.

==I Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jaythor@well.com. He also writes periodic blogs at PaloAltoOnline.com.==

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Comments

2 people like this
Posted by PA Grandma
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 4, 2016 at 1:05 pm

In 1999 Scott McNealy made his widely quoted comment: " You have no privacy anyway, get over it." The situation has not changed since then, and has in fact, gotten worse. Clearly if you take his statement to heart and make every effort not to include in emails or posts anything that you would not want widely repeated, you will not be in the position of the various folks who have been "outed" by Wikileaks.

That is one aspect of the discussion. But the difficulty I have with Thorwaldson's article is that he does not clearly differentiate between "privacy" and "security". Our privacy is compromised because the security of our systems is flawed and susceptible to hacking. That is real problem. The explosion of all varieties of on-line activity has far outstripped on-line security. Until it is possible to set up personal and business security systems that truly are secure, exposure of our various kinds of on-line data is at risk. Unfortunately governmental desire to access our information is in direct conflict with personal system/online security strong enough to thwart hacking.


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