Will privacy through obscurity work?


Photo by Angel Shark

Jud's latest post on the generation chasm in attitudes to privacy got me thinking. I'm basing my business on the theory that people will trade privacy for utility in the right conditions. Looking around, everyone from Facebook to Twitter to location-aware services like Brightkite are publicly posting all sorts of personal information. My parents get a neighbor to take the mail in when they're away so burglars won't know the house is empty. Now hundreds of thousands of people tell the world when and where they're on vacation. How come we're not all robbed?

Part of the answer is we're in the honeymoon period for the technology. Remember when every email you got was exciting because it was from a real person, not a robot responder or spam, and you could open attachments without worry? Once services go mainstream, malicious people will abuse them and the media will whip up moral panics.

Another part is the expectation that even though your information is technically public, nobody will bother tracking it down. For example, it's not easy to see conversations between people you don't know on the default Twitter interface. People's attitudes will change once the tools for mining that data improve. It's the same with company email. Everybody knows that their boss or IT admin could be reading their email, but it would be so time-consuming that most people have an expectation of privacy. This is the equivalent of the old Microsoft approach of security through obscurity. Though it has a bad reputation, it worked for a long, long time.

My prediction is we'll keep muddling through as always. There will be backlashes against the complete openness of the current web services as stalkers and spammers attack, but being lost in the crowd isn't a terrible strategy. There will be new social conventions, as we figure out a consensus on what's safe to put online, and new access controls, hopefully based on implicit information like who you've communicated with.

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