Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Identity and Transparency: The politics of information

In physical life, I go out for a walk. I stop at the bank. The bank knows certain things about me; my accounts, my Social Security number, my phone number (one of them), etc. They don't know what breakfast cereal I like; they don't know my health history; they don't know my preferred news sources.

I leave the bank and go to the bookstore. They might know my credit card number (unless I pay in cash). They might have one of my phone numbers if I give it to them. They might keep a list of the books I've bought (if I filled in their "customer survey"). They don't know my bank account number or Social Security number. They don't know a lot about me; I mean... it's only a bookstore. They might not even know my "legal name."

I leave the bookstore and go to the coffee shop. Those people don't know anything more than (perhaps) I like sugar twists, I like double milk for my coffee and I usually come in at a certain time (providing the same person is on shift at the same time daily). They don't know any of the preceeding information. Why do they need it, when all I want is coffee and a doughnut?

No one thinks this is unusual. No one thinks I am "hiding" anything. No one thinks such behaviour is "shifty" or "suspicious." No one thinks I am "concealing my identity behind a first- name-only relationship."


Why should I provide an X-ray and proctoscopic detailed report on everything I do in my life to, basically, shopkeepers? Because that's what a lot of this internet jazz is about, isn't it? A bunch of shopkeeps, who want me to buy stuff. Just... store clerks. Yet they want information I do not give to my bank or my doctor all at one time, let alone some random store owner like K-Mart or the local deli.

It's been shown hundreds of times that these people, who really have no business in my business, are unable to secure their information. Unlike many, I actually investigate and study these breeches of information. Like most who do, the figures are clear: more than 3/4 of these breeches are inside jobs and sheer negligence, as they always have been. Sony got "hacked" not for monetary gain but to demonstrate their failure to meet the requirements of data handling and security to which they are legally responsible.

So, it is somehow "suspicious" of me to be wary of turning over sensitive data, which has no bearing on my purchasing some widget from a store, to people who have shown time and again their inability to protect such information? Don't give me that jazz about "hackers" or I will have to inundate you with links to statistics and charts on the last 100 high-profile data losses. Google them yourself. As an old professor of mine used to say, "do your own homework."


"If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." This seems to be the huge mantra being pushed these days. It is used as a justification to require me to submit to a data examination that would put an IRS audit or OB-GYN exam to shame. This is a classic straw man argument.

Am I "hiding" when I don't tell the bookstore my SSN? Hiding when I don't tell the bank I like Cocoa Crispies? Hiding when I don't tell the coffee shop what I bought yesterday and what medicines I am taking? Sounds ridiculous when you put it that way, yes?

And this vaunted transparency does not work both ways. It is a one-way mirror, which is not transparency at all. When police installed cameras in all their squad cars, they did it with great hoopla. Yet now... those cameras are being quietly removed. Why? Because they showed things the police don't want shown or subpoenaed. Malls can film me; I can't film in a mall. I can't take photos of public buildings, yet those buildings can train cameras on me.

The TSA can stick their fingers in my genitals but I cannot take a photo of them doing it without the threat of my camera being confiscated, my name put on a "hassle list" and the chance of a nice cosy interrogation in some small room. I can't film a cop tasering someone, even if I am standing well out of the "area of conflict."

The proponents of this one-way transparency crap use "violation of civil rights" as a cover for denying the filming of a public servant (police) doing the job I trust them to do and pay for with my taxes. They throw up unnecessary roadblocks and delays to deny information requests they are legally required to answer. In fact, they do everything they can to hide information from me.

So who is it that has "nothing to hide, nothing to fear"? Who is it that wants to stick alien probes into me and suck out and coordinate every single scrap of data I produce in my entire life, and yet will not let me access public information under legal requests? Who is it that fears cameras and accountability? Who is it that pushes "transparency" on me under the cover of fear-mongering (terrorism, 'think of the children') and yet fears transparency on the other side?


I have nothing to hide. But I refuse to get naked and allow the jellied finger to probe me simply because I want to talk or shop. Just because "it's the internet!!!" doesn't make common sense nor common practice suddenly "strange" or "suspicious."

It's a lot more suspicious to me, this push towards "total accountability" and "total transparency" on my part when I can't get the same from public agencies that use my money for funding. When my bank makes me jump through hoops to get my money but has a website "hackable" simply by reading the URL (which is a complete failure on their IT team's design; this "hack" has been known since pre-web days).

When I do not have to hack to get your info; there are many companies that will simply sell me your info in bulk. Don't believe me? Do some quick research. Yep, they'll sell me everything you filled in on their little forms (banks, insurance agencies, you name it) in bulk, for pennies a name.

The only reason that makes sense to me about this "call to transparency" and "accountability" is a bunch of shopkeeps that want to buy and sell me as a commodity. The information they glean from me is not for my benefit; it's for them.

Oh, and there might be one other reason: there are laws pertaining to the gathering of intelligence by the State and the Government. However... when the State and the Government are merely buying information from these companies... they're just another customer. It's only business. See how slick that is? A nice way to route around such unpleasantness as the laws and Constitutions that are held up to us as guidelines.

Transparency? Sure! Quit hiding the backroom negotiations and text of the P.R.O.T.E.C.T.I.P. Act! Stop hiding the deals to turn a public utility (the data transmission lines we paid for) into a private enterprise. Stop seizing domain names without a warrant which I can access. Show me the budget breakdown for the TSA. Quit hiding the medical reports about backscanner radiation exposure levels...


This is not "transparency;" this is an interrogation in a room with one-way glass.


Wizzy Gynoid said...

Our identity in RL is ambiguous. How do we *know* someone? Do we ever really know someone? One day we go out wearing one outfit. The next day we go out wearing something completely different. Our persona changes from one day to the next and for the event we are attending... Does this sound familiar? I could argue that a virtual identity is LESS ambiguous. Think of the avatar you know who has never changed their outfit or appearance. I know of a few.

Boudica Destiny said...

Brilliant post, Miso!

Somewhere along the line, the "shopkeeps" discovered that their customers are their best commodity. And we the unsuspecting cattle led to the auction-house, bought and sold over and over again. Everyone's a customer, and everyone is a commodity and information is gold. But it's okay because "It's the internet", and "everyone else is doing it" so it must be safe.

Delving into the intentions behind the masks of the people, techs, companies, agencies, hacks that we authorize and entrust our most personal data with = The stuff of nightmares.

Do we really want to know who's behind the glass?

It's okay you can tell me, I'm from the Internet...

Jim Tarber said...

This one is a keeper for all time, and deserves a much wider audience than just this blog. But for now, let me just say two thumbs up. (Not jellied.)

Botgirl Questi said...

Hi Miso. Nice post!

I agree with the underlying idea that privacy should be controlled by the person, not the platform. That said, I don't know who's advocating the type of radical transparency you describe, outside of Zuckerberg. Can you post some links?

Miso Susanowa said...

@Boudica: yes, I want to know who's behind the glass!

@Botgirl: ohhh, I'd have to post so many links; this is the meme now. I will try to organize such a list; I keep lots of bookmarks to such things.

Brinda said...

Yup! Yup! Yup!
I offer H.P. Gary, a security company that "stepped in it".
Money and perceived "power" won't secure our stuff... I offer M. Zuckerberg and FailBook.
Yeah...let me give any information to a site that can't secure it's creators info. NOT!
I refuse to even give a Starbucks employee my name for a triple grande latte

Ceorl said...

Brilliant! I could not agree more. We are able to be far more anonymous in RL than we ever are online.

Gwyneth Llewelyn said...

You know, "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." is actually an almost straight quote out of... George Orwell's "1984". A couple of decades ago, this was a typical statement used to bash right-wing extremists. Now we have Mark Zuckerberg and his "Privacy is Dead" policy.

It's a scary world out there.

Scottius said...

Great post Miso, yes it's a one-sided transparency.

Will Burns said...

I completely agree, and before the world collapses into a black hole, let me explain. I'm completely for the right to privacy and anonymity should the person wish to keep it that way. I don't pretend to have a pretext of them hiding anything, and even if they were it's none of my business why they would be hiding anything, nor should I really care. That being said, I'm fairly open and transparent with my digital persona by choice, and I also know the implications behind doing so. In the end, it's about keeping the legitimate choice either for or against transparency, but that choice is always, and should remain, at the discretion of the person whose identity is in question, not third parties.

qpop said...

@Miso I agree with your basic premise - however one's mileage varies with how much two way transparency exists - In Australia, for instance, we are allowed to photograph public or private buildings (from public land) but cant take photos inside art galleries... and can photograph and publish photos of police doing their jobs (in public) but have no constitutional right to free speech.

I also agree with @Aeonix - the choice of what to reveal should reside with the individual.

Given that privacy and rights to privacy are not taught in schools as part of citizenship (something that wasn't taught till recently in Aussie schools - after all we all already knew what "citizenship" entailed by osmosis didn't we?) it is not surprising that there is so much misinformation about what is sensible or even actually NEEDED information to share for any given transaction. Without education and knowledge there is a wide open field for possible (and actual) abuse and no chance of accountability.

(I think I make sense - hard to tell i need more coffee)

Miso Susanowa said...

@Aeonix: I agree with you exactly. The choice of "data sharing" has always been there in "the real world." Appending "but it's the internets!!!" to these questions is a red herring; it is only used to justify laws we would not condone in physical life (at least not yet).

@qpop: I do admit to writing from the bias of what is happening in this country (US) right now, especially because it seems the Dept Of Justice, the Feds and the rest are trying to extend US "law" to other countries, claiming they "own" the internet.

As far as "... taught in school as part of citizenship"... I learned these things in 5th grade Civics class. There's a point you raise also: the concerted effort to promulgate dis- and mis-information so as to inundate signal with noise, as in the burying of reports from reputable medical researchers as to the horrific amount of radiation exposure passengers (and TSA employees) are getting from the backscatter machines at airports...

Welcome to the world of PsyOps- Psychological Operations. Disinformation is an old and reliable tool of the intelligence agencies.

Mera Kranfel said...

I aggree with Jim, this deserves a much wider audience, brilliant dont cover it.
Im thankful i got to read this.

sororNishi said...

Yes. Very Yes.

Skylar Smythe said...

Awesome and articulate as always Miso ~ xx.

I would like to pinpoint the exact moment that the marketing profession (and it is a trade/profession) decided to eliminate the guess work and use traffic and stats and SEO bullshit games to manipulate feed, following and frenzy buying.

It's the high pressure that irritates most. The expectation that we "must" be okay with having our habits transformed into trending which can then be bought and sold to stimulate and influence our purchases.

How much of this is due to failing global economies? Companies desperate to make money in a contraction period of consumer spending?

It's desperate and not working as well as it used to. Which makes them try harder and push the invasive envelope further and further disillusioning the consumer even more. We now see consumers VERY sensitive about sharing information and statistics. and hyper vigilant on sites/activities that encourage over sharing where SEM/SEO data can be collected.

It's commercial entrapment. And Mr. and Ms. Consumer are not only catching on... they are abhorring it. Which is actually good news for traditional thoughtful researched marketing... would should return to quality classical principles of the four P's shortly, rather than relying solely on e-data mining cheats…

Miso Susanowa said...


For me, it had genesis in the Disney-Microsoft-Apple triumvirate in the late 90s-2000; the beginning of selling methods instead of products.

You know I am not against marketing; a company needs to profit to stay in business. But when companies started to try to corner the market on conceptions and ideas, instead of turning out product, they wrote their own obituaries. It's another bubble-trick and the backlash is starting now. Not very long for a "business model" to show the strain; the other, ancient methods of business lasted for hundreds of years. Tossing all that wisdom out the window was sheer arrogance and caprice.

Sierra Sugar said...

One of the best written arguments on this topic that I've read to date. And the comments as well! Thank you Miso for summing this up so nicely.

And I agree this needs a much wider audience than just this blog. I do hope you share it as many places as you possibly can and allow others to share it as well.

Google (and FB and others) really need to read this and think about it hard. They need to listen to their user base and stop trying to force us to reveal every single aspect of our lives just to prove we exist.

Miso Susanowa said...

TY Sierra, you are always welcome to report, link or tweet my posts!