Like all of us, I’ve been reflecting on the aftermath of the Paris attacks last month. And the implications for all of us, and nearly 15 years on from 9/11.
I’ll share this personal anecdote. On the evening of November 13th, as events in Paris were still, as they say “fluid”, I posted a shot of the French tricolor to my Facebook feed with the caption: “Everyone has two countries -- his own and France." As events continued to unfold into the evening, an old friend from high school reached out – she “liked” my post.
In the summer of 1990, as 17-year-olds, she, her sister, and I had a fun and friendly evening out in the Left Bank. My friend commented on my “France” post with a fond recollection of the evening, and posted a hyperlink to the club we visited that night 25 years ago, asking “Is this the place”? I confirmed that it indeed was.
The next morning (Saturday), I found that Facebook had completely deleted my entire post, together with all subsequent comments. Could it have been a blanket – and fiat – decision to scrub any and all references to specific places in Paris in the midst of the crisis? I’ve never experienced any sort of “weird” malfunction of that type on Facebook in quite the same way before.
Which brings us to the question of security in the age of social media. Who remembers Georg von Trapp’s line from the movie The Sound of Music: “I was, Herr Zeller, under the impression that telegrams in Austria are PRIVATE! At least ... in the Austria that I know...”
The 1965 film adaptation of Rogers and Hammerstein’s story about the Von Trapp family begins in a so-called “last Golden Days of the 1930s”... children singing, stern father whistling away ghosts from the last war on his bosun’s whistle, sipping pink lemonade and Champagne on alpine terraces. Golden, indeed.
So when stern-pater-familias-turned-loveable-émigré Georg draws his line in the sand by stating that telegrams in “his” Austria are private – as jackbooted troops solidify the Anschluss all around him -- it is at turns both honorable, sad, and telling. Georg the naïve, Georg the stoic – as his beloved country sells out its soul. When I was a kid back in the day seeing the movie, that part always provoked a response in me: “Poor people – thank heaven that could NEVER happen in America”.
Fast forward to 2015 – and our brave new (digital) world. Shocking events in Paris, Brussels, Mali, Beirut, and San Bernardino over the past month have brought this debate back into the full spotlight, with the terrorist attacks renew encryption debate. Apple CEO Tim Cook is in the highest level talks possible with the US Government, and the Information Technology Industry Council, whose members include Apple and Microsoft Corp., said in a statement, “Weakening security with the aim of advancing security simply does not make sense.”
There’s a lesson in here regarding Internet privacy, and all things “open and sharing”, on the give-to-get calculus we all make every day, hour and minute in the Age of Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. We (at least in the US other liberal democracies) have been raised with an explicit understanding of privacy underpinning our lives and the ones we love and care about. But now consider the plethora of smart home devices – let alone oldie-but-goodie technologies like Gmail – that have worked their way into our daily personal processes.
We’d do well to stay ever-vigilant on assumptions of privacy: let’s call it the “Georg von Trapp Maxim”. Now, Facebook is certainly not the Gestapo. But they’re going to have to wrestle with thorny issues around their role, and responsibility, to privacy in increasingly twisty ways. They’re not the bad guys. But it’s so weird to think – based on my 11/13 experience with my “France” post – that someone, something, some... algorithm?... is watching over your shoulder.
Why did I feel “weird”, instead of reassured? If we indulge for a moment the idea that my post being deleted was not “a technical glitch”, wasn’t it the case that the “good guys” were on the lookout? Facebook to the rescue? But still... It felt “weird”. What were they doing with my “innocent” posting that night? I quickly reposted my quote, but all the original comments, including those of my high school friend, were gone.
So, how did we get here? Aside from the fact that we live in interesting, unusual, and sometimes unsettling times, why are we walking a knife edge of feeling “weird” and feeling “safe”? Here are a few of notable greasings of a slippery slope to Creepyland.
- Your Samsung SmartTV is spying on you, basically
- Gogglebox: why watching people watching TV never gets old
- Amazon wants to put a listening speaker in your home
- Google: How not to be a 'Glasshole'
Take note of the last line item above. Glass’ initial demise came on the heels of its becoming a symbol of “techies”, and its inbuilt camera giving way to concerns about privacy. Basically, in polite company, it was deemed about as socially acceptable as lighting up an unfiltered Marlboro at an American Lung Association meeting. And Google Glass as we know it is also seems to be morphing in a “fail fast and iterate” kind of way.Could these types of groundswell pushbacks function as a natural lodestar and moral compass just when we need“Georg’s Maxim” more than ever?
Will the give-to-get ratio of Code Halo sharing be the same? We made the case in “Code Halos” that it’s essential for companies to give their customers a “delete” button should they so choose to exercise their right to be forgotten: companies need to retain the records they need to for compliance, but otherwise can send personal information (messages, questions, answers, trades likes, personal history, etc.) back – and then hit the “delete” button. A good step in the right direction. The European Union has been driving this agenda for a while with “right to be forgotten” legislation. And even Google’s motto, “don’t be evil”, just by being it’s motto, in a way puts the question out there a little too conspicuously (“methinks the lady doth protest too much...”, etc.)
But you also have organizations like the World Privacy Forum openly questioning whether concepts such as “consumer scoring” are inherently fair. Could Code Halos risk becoming the new high-fructose corn syrup (i.e., “Big Code” becomes the latest incarnation of Big Tobacco, Big Ag., Big Fat/”Super Size Me”, etc.)?
Nothing inherently new here, and for sure there’s many, many variations on this theme out in the media these days. But the questions concerning where to draw the line around privacy are only going to intensify.
The challenge will be on the vigilance (and diligence) of customers – and it’s all the more pressing given the rapid advances in embedded smart technologies, nanotech, and drones. And seen through the prism of Georg’s Maxim, this is more than just about privacy and security – it’s about who we want to be as a society, both when we’re online and also “out-and-about”, woven into the fabric of our daily lives. And where this all gets REALLY confusing is when you have to answer seemingly simple questions like: “Snowden - hero or villain?” And in the wake of Paris, and the “Georg Maxim” let’s reiterate: Facebook is not the Gestapo.
And remember – this is a debate we’re having in liberal democracies, not in extant or incipient fascist (or otherwise) totalitarian states (heaven help “those people”). Arguably, in the age of the Code Halo, you would probably be more secure using a telegram. But in the age of the Code Halo, for safety’s sake, would you really want to? Auf wiedersehen, Georg.