WikiLeaks And Web Tracking: Will Secrecy And Privacy Ever Be The Same?
This week began with the extraordinary disclosure, orchestrated by WikiLeaks, of hundreds of thousands of once-secret U.S. diplomatic communications. Yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission called for a do-not-track List to put Internet users in control over what information is captured and stored about their Web browsing habits. In a world of ubiquitous digital networked communications, will secrecy and privacy ever be the same? Just because both involved the Internet, will some confuse the issues of personal privacy with the purposeful leaking of state secrets? Probably.
The U.S. government, its diplomats and its allies would clearly prefer that all of their internal communications be kept secret. Of course, they also want the contents of those communications to be available in real-time to other officials and contractors across the world who could potentially act on the intelligence contained in them. That is why diplomatic cables were transmitted and stored on a digital computer network accessible to many hundreds of thousands of people.
Many people would like to keep secret almost all of the information related to where they go, what they do, and even what media they consume online. Of course, they also want easy real-time access to all of the world 's information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and they want it for free on the Internet. Some perceive ad tracking as "theft" of their personal information, although very little of it can be tied back to anything more personal than their IP address.
I do not condone the actions of those who stole the secret diplomatic cables or WikiLeaks for promoting that theft (or "leak" depending on your perspective). Nor do I condone Web companies that track users without providing appropriate notice, transparency and choice. However, I do believe that as our society and government deal with each of these issues, I hope that their responses are rooted in the recognition that secrecy and privacy are not exactly the same. Also, under any circumstances -- as we have known them in the past -- secrecy and privacy will not be the same in a digital future. Much less will be secret, and much less will be private. That may be a good thing. That may be a bad thing. But, that thing is our new reality nonetheless.
What might this transformation mean for us? Here are some thoughts:
Leaking of secrets is becoming easier. Lots of government secrets have been leaked throughout history. Anyone in the media business knows that. How do you think journalists get some of their more spectacular stories? The Valerie Plame incident is a great example. Of course, formerly only a few top government officials controlled what secrets were leaked. But, today, a non-commissioned officer stationed in a war zone with the right passwords or hacking skills has that power.
The protection of privacy will be build into digital technologies. While providing foolproof privacy protection won't be easy, it will be possible -- and we will see much more of it. Many digital and web companies will build it into their offerings from the beginning. They will do this not so much because governments require it. They will do it because their users will want and will value it -- and it will give them a competitive advantage.
More focus on harms, not practices. It is very hard to regulate technologies and processes related to protecting secrecy and privacy, particularly in a digital world. They change too fast. Rather, governments and regulators will find themselves focusing more on policing and preventing harm - prosecuting leakers that break the law and tracking companies that harm users. This will not only be easier to do, but easier to define.
Public sensibilities on privacy will evolve. Over time, Web users will recognize that the Internet is a public space, not unlike public malls or streets. You may surf the Web from your bedroom, but your surfing takes you out of that private, protected place. Just as people can be recognized when they walk through public malls or streets, they will be recognized online if they haven't taken steps to prevent that recognition, which will probably mean that there will be many parts of the Web where they won't be able to go if they want to remain cloaked.
I have biases here for sure. As a former First Amendment lawyer for newspapers, I have always favored more transparency in government. Having worked in data-driven ad delivery in digital media, I have always believed advertising and recognition are costs that consumers who want free content and services may have to pay -- even if it seems on the surface to compromise their privacy.
What do you think?