Archive for April, 2012

Privacy and the People


It feels like a number of good developments are afoot in the privacy space, prompting me to post.  First off, congratulations are in order to the Wall Street Journal for their finalist nod in this year’s Pulitizer Prize.  Frankly, I know I wasn’t the only one a bit surprised it didn’t happen last year but maybe that’s how this prize works.

I can’t say it wasn’t a bit tough to be on the other side of some of those articles trying to explain and defend practices (and Julia Angwin in particular is a tough and shrewd reporter whom I really respect), but I always respected what her team was doing and believe that the What They Know series has truly moved forward privacy in this country.   So much of the log jam in creating change is the lack of knowledge and transparency in what is really happening “under the hood.”  This series was unique in beginning to crack things open and expose practices in a way that was really illuminating for many, including those of us that practice in this space.

On a more personal note, I am proud to count as my colleagues both Ashkan Soltani and Dave Campbell, both of whom were/are an integral part of this team and a big part of the “cracking open” and exposing of what was really happening on a technology level.  Way to go, guys!

(And not surprisingly, this isn’t the first, nor is it likely to be the last, time Ashkan has been recognized by the Pulitzer team.)

Taking Privacy to the People

As various regulations and legislation wind their way through legislatures around the globe, the reality is that legal solutions are slow and usually imperfect (it’s rare to have the kind of foresight and long-term success that legislation like Sec. 230 of the Communications Decency Act enjoys).  Such laws and regs take a long time to enact and are hard to do well, especially in a rapidly evolving technology space.  And in a space like the web that is truly global, add to the mix the interoperability complexity.  Which is not to say that I don’t think that legislation has it’s place, I do.  I very much hope that some useful guidance can be provided on the privacy front from lawmakers and regulators.  And if it can be even half as well drafted as Sec. 230, we’ll all be the better for it.

But even in the best case scenario, private solutions will be, at a minimum, an important piece of the solution.  And an informed citizenry is ultimately the most crucial piece to making this work (which provides a nice tie-in to my Pulitzer news above.)  This is why I was interested and encouraged to see some private initiatives recently in the news.

The first is the beginnings of a private, non-profit ISP called Calyx dedicated to a privacy-sensitive service offering.  As the vision is described in cNet, it sounds like a true privacy-by-design ISP, with things like end-to-end encryption so that only users control their data.  Working to design and implement similar products at Mozilla, like Sync, is one of the feats I was most proud of at Mozilla.

And the leader, Nicholas Merrill, is even crowd sourcing its funding, which I love on lots of levels.  I’d be thrilled to see models of funding like this take off for entrepreneurs, especially where there is a public-interest element to the venture.  But for privacy purposes, avoiding the usual funding routes, could be really valuable in helping Calyx keep to its vision.

Although much of the press coverage is focused on government surveillance and the founder’s efforts in rebuking extrajudicial (ie, not reviewed or overseen by any judge) and potentially unconstitutional requests like NSA letters, I’ve long talked about the need for more privacy-competitive IT offerings and I would welcome this on many levels for clients for privacy reasons beyond government surveillance.  I can’t say I know anything about Merrill or his offering, but I’m excited to hear about what he’s doing, and I hope to see efforts like this succeed.  I have made my own small contribution to the venture and hope you will too.  I think these competitive and free market solutions should be welcome by those on all sides of the political spectrum.

The second development I wanted to call out was a site, call Priveazy, designed to inform users about their online privacy.  Again, I don’t know the team and haven’t even gone through the site fully, but, really, that’s not the point.  The win is in the fact that folks are out there designing and making available products to help educate and empower people.

I hope you can check these sites out and let me know about other developments you are aware of that are trying to bring privacy directly to the people.


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