Privacy Comes Full Circle

May 2, 2017

You want to have privacy online? Then get offline. Don’t want Google, Facebook, the government, or Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon knowing what websites you’re browsing? Don’t browse anything. Shut it all down, disconnect your Internet service, throw away your stupid smart phone, go off the grid just to be safe.

So all of this online privacy debate isn't really about privacy - it's about money.

Sound far-fetched? Perhaps. Impossible? Probably. Lean in close, I have something to tell you dear reader: no one cares about your privacy online, not the government, not your Internet Service Provider (ISP), not Google, not Facebook, not Trump. 

No one really seems to care about online privacy except for perhaps Bruce Schneier who is the Bruce Lee of Internet privacy most people have never heard about.

Bruce Schneier is a computer security expert. In the 1990s he wrote Applied Cryptography, which became the textbook for how to design and use cryptographic algorithms to encrypt data. He went on to write a number of other books about data security and privacy, his most recent being Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World (2015).

Data and Goliath is a stark indictment against the erosion of privacy in the Internet age and the ushering in of what Schneier calls “the golden age of surveillance”.

“Today’s technology gives governments and corporations robust capabilities for mass surveillance,” writes Schneier. “Mass surveillance is dangerous. It enables discrimination based on almost any criteria: race, religion, class, political beliefs. It is being used to control what we see, what we can do, and ultimately, what we say.”

A classic counter-response in the online privacy debate is, “If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.”

“This is a dangerously narrow conception of the value of privacy,” says Schneier. “Privacy is an essential human need, and central to our ability to control how we relate to the world. Being stripped of privacy is fundamentally dehumanizing.”

Back in April, while everyone was preoccupied with the NCAA basketball final and Senate Democrats were psyching themselves up for an all-nighter to filibuster Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, President Trump signed congressional legislation that repealed the Federal Communications Commission’s privacy protections, “rolling back a landmark policy from the Obama era and enabling Internet providers to compete with Google and Facebook in the online ad market,” according to a report in The Washington Post.

Those repealed FCC privacy protections had banned ISPs from collecting, storing, sharing, and selling customer information without consent.

The repeal of those privacy protections stripped away what little protections consumers had left. Without them, privacy isn’t even bringing a knife to a gunfight anymore. This doesn’t end well.

Everything you do on the Internet goes through your ISP. All web browsing, all application use, all email and messaging, all gaming. Everything. All of those data bits flow through the infrastructure of your ISP.

In the past, ISPs were just “dumb pipes”, that is, they didn’t know the specific contents of the data flowing through their networks. What customers were purchasing was bandwidth, which determined how fast their data would move through the ISP. The higher the speed, the higher the monthly service cost. While this is still true today, bandwidth prices have decreased over the past decade while bandwidth availability and speeds have increased. ISPs, especially the big ones like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon, are now seeking new revenue streams.

So all of this online privacy debate isn’t really about privacy—it’s about money. The ISPs want in on the growing slice of the customer data pie, territory that has been owned primarily by Google and Facebook who have profited vastly from the model.

The difference, however, is that you choose to use Google, Facebook, and other web services that harvest data about you in exchange for getting to use those services “for free”. They then use the data they gather on you for targeted advertising. Online advertising is currently a $200 billion industry and growing rapidly.

Here are some things that ISPs can and will do in this new privacy landscape: 1) create profiles of you based on location, demographic, and web browsing habits that they will then sell to marketers or other data brokers, 2) highjack your web searches and direct you to websites that are paying them for traffic from particular search terms, 3) analyze the content of your traffic and insert targeted ads based on that content. 

I’m going to predict right now that privacy will actually get a resurgence this month, following the release of the movie The Circle. Based on the novel by David Eggers, The Circle is the story of Mae Holland (played by Emma Watson) who gets a job at Circle, the world’s largest and most successful social media company. At the request of the company’s founder (Tom Hanks), Mae joins a social media experiment that pushes the boundaries of privacy, ethics, and personal freedom “only to uncover a nefarious agenda that will affect the lives of her friends, family and that of humanity,” according to movie website IMDb.com.

Sure, we’ll be talking about The Circle and privacy, but we’ll be doing it online via social media while connected to the Internet via an ISP that is now free to harvest everything.

Scott Dewing is a technologist, teacher, and writer. He lives with his family on a low-tech farm in the State of Jefferson. Archives of his columns and other writings are available on his website: scottdewing.com