Forget “twerking” and “selfies.” Dictionary.com dubbed “privacy” the word of the year in 2013. Here at The Not-So Private Parts, it feels a little like the unknown indie band we’ve been obsessed with for years just won best album at the Grammys. So why did the plight of our personal data achieve Arcade Fire-level fame this year?
A previously unknown technologist named Edward Snowden had a whole lot to do with it, leading more people to express concern about civil liberties than about terrorism for the first time in the history of Pew Research polling. There has long been a debate about whether privacy is more imperiled by government or corporate actors. This year, the two converged as it became clear just how far the hands of intelligence agencies can reach into the data collected by private companies, thanks to the Snowden leaks, which themselves showed how difficult it is even for a incredibly secret agency like the NSA to preserve its privacy.
It wasn’t all spy agencies on info-binging diets. There were the usual stories of people compromising their own privacy with unwise sharing of information on public forums — or the surprising opposite: people who ceased sharing who were mistakenly assumed to be dead. It is not a new phenomenon that technology makes information on us easier to collect, store, search, share, and lose control over, but it was a phenomenon that got a lot of attention this year. Here are the stories that transformed privacy from a Hannah Montana sideshow into a show-stealing, tongue-lolling, twerkirrific spotlight stealer.
1. This list could start and end with the surveillance odd couple of Edward Snowden and the NSA. The countless documents gathered by Snowden caused his former employer which had been known until then as “No Such Agency” and “Never Say Anything” to become the regular subject of press releases from a newly-launched Tumblr from the Director of National Intelligence. The leaks led to revelations of dragnet phone metadata surveillance, the same for email until 2011, subversion of encryption technology, spying on porn habits of persons of interest, monitoring the phone calls of world leaders, hacking of tech companies, and on and on. And of course, some NSA employees used their surveillance superpowers to stalk loved ones instead of terrorists. Conspiracy theorists everywhere suddenly got to drop “conspiracy” from their titles.
2. Privacy actually hurt the bottom line for corporations. Cisco said the NSA revelations hurt its business in China. Analysts say the cloud industry may lose billions over the next three years. Executives from Google and Facebook said the government defending the NSA by saying they only snooped on foreigners wasn’t helping them in conducting business abroad. The tech companies have put pressure on the government to reform the NSA, with Zynga founder Mark Pincus reportedly going so far as to ask President Obama to pardon Snowden. Tech companies also reacted by being more transparent about what they hand over to the government — at least what they hand over that they’re allowed to talk about. Even the traditionally close-lipped telecoms AT&T and Verizon announced that they’ll start issuing transparency reports about how often they hand data to the gov.
3. An industry report from Swedish tech company Ericsson estimates that 50 billion devices will be networked by 2020 into an “Internet of Things,” meaning your car, lights, toilet, thermometer, and baby monitor will be online. And as we know, what’s online can be hacked. In fact, all of those things already have been (check the links). As the inevitable march towards complete connectivity continues, companies will need to make sure security settings keep up. It’s not just about criminal intruders, though. Thanks to more and more of our belongings being “smart” — or “tethered” as Jonathan Zittrain calls them — they’re constantly capturing data about us and reporting back to the companies that made them how we’re using them. So Tesla can throw data from a critical journalist’s test ride back at him and Xbox might track every person in the room and watch their facial expressions to decide which ads to show them. Take it in a dystopic direction, bring in John Carpenter and you have the makings for a new sci-fi horror film called The Things.
4. Google Glass. Google gave us a tiny glimpse of a world where everyone wears a tiny camera on their face, with ubiquitous facial recognition a real possibility and any noteworthy moment a wink away from going viral. People freaked out. Others were willing to pay out the nose to put a smartphone on their face.
5. This story had its start in 2012: Teens in Steubenville did very bad things during a night of alcohol and partying, and shared the evidence via social media. Without Instagram and Twitter, the sexual assault of a young girl might have gone undocumented and likely would not have come to the wider attention of the world — which then put pressure on a small Ohio town to make sure justice was served. A trial by social media preceded that in a court of law this summer. If parents weren’t already NSAing their kids via social media, this was the rallying cry for them to start.
6. Speaking of teens and privacy, it’s long been said they don’t care about it. The rise of Snapchat this year suggests otherwise: millions of users — many of them presumably teens — and a reported $3-billion acquisition offer from Facebook (leaked to the WSJ). The self-destructing messaging app is undeniably popular and part of the appeal is privacy through ephemerality. What you don’t save forever can’t hurt you…. Hopefully. Snapchat isn’t a sureproof method.
7. Revenge porn has been around for years. But scorned exes punishing former loved ones by putting intimate photos of them online finally caught the attention of lawmakers. In October, California joined New Jersey in putting an anti-revenge porn law on its books. Those not in the Garden or Golden State should remember that thing about taking photos that self-destruct.
8. Silk Road’s promise of an anonymous marketplace to buy drugs free of the long arm of the law proved to be a false one. Privacy-enhancing technologies Bitcoin and Tor were not enough to keep the feds at bay.
9. Data brokers would be under scrutiny if they weren’t so inscrutable. The invisible $156 billion industry is premised on collecting and selling information about us, and helping media companies like Facebook and Twitter connect advertisers with specific users. The industry — which is made up of a bunch of companies you’ve likely never heard of that have potentially heard a lot about you — was not helped by the discovery of one advertising lists of rape victims. The FTC wants the data brokers to tell us more about what they know about us. Acxiom ponied up with a public-facing site called About The Data promising to reveal what “data says about you and how it is used.” Apparently, the data makes a lot of mistakes.
Sorry, drones didn’t make the cut. While there was a lot excitement about consumer uses and dismay over their use for assassinations abroad, the spying potential of drones — whether by peeping toms or Big Brother — hasn’t fully taken flight yet.