Privacy on the Internet: the new Baroque

March 28, 2016

We all know that our opinions on what to expose and what to conceive has changed over time. Consequently, people used specific methods to convey something private so it is understood by few or only one intended individual.

Privacy on the Internet: the new Baroque

Let’s take the Baroque époque as an example. This was a time when hidden meanings, hints and allegories were a typical part of one’s conversation. Then a work of art would contain messages and signs which were clear to only one individual whom the message was intended for. Once a person is gone, no one would be able to decipher the message and uncover its meaning.

Digital messages are by nature indestructible and can be published and duplicated instantly. But you are well able to transform the messages in a way they are clear exclusively to select people in a certain context. In an era when everything has gone public, this could be an efficient way to preserve your privacy.

The world can see your bathroom selfie or your very private message on the social networks and think your life is absolutely exposed, transparent, and public. However, no one really knows what exactly you are feeling when you do or post something online. Emotions are what makes your personality unique when you communicate with other people.

I see an emerging trend of individually decoded symbols in our online talk. As we now have no means of completely abandoning online communication – however, I think the probability of new ‘online luddites’ may well be high enough — the necessary extent of privacy would be achievable through the use of relatively isolated communication systems.

Once this phenomenon is born and proliferated, it will be capable of changing our language, media, advertising, social and political discourse and many other things, including the very structure of our society.

What is no longer private?

In today’s society, three spheres are considered private: personal relationships (including love life); money; everything we call ‘freedom of conscience;’ and as well as political commitment and religious affiliations. However, these aspects of privacy are actively transforming, which at times, remains unnoticed by us.

What’s critical is that we are losing our privacy in its original definition. Anyone looking at our profile on Instagram or Facebook knows how we live, vote, where we go and what we do, etc.

Yet, a person should have means of managing their exposure. A society by definition is where the communal and the individual are separated, and where you can clearly distinguish between what is yours and what is someone else’s. That said, regardless of how fast ‘the end of privacy’ evolves as a trend, there’s ‘the new privacy’ emerging, which requires new technologies to guard it. Those technologies will surely be soon available on the market.

This is where the infosec industry is moving towards. In other words, we will produce digital locks and fences for virtual doors and new digital homes where the new society will be living in. Those new ‘appliances’ will influence the transformation of the existing and new social institutions.

What’s curious, all those changes are approaching us like a tsunami, like a quiet social revolution. We still cannot apprehend those changes, as they are happening faster than we are able to realize.

New privacy for a personality and relationships: manuscripts don’t burn

Johannes Brahms, a great composer, was in love with Clara Schumann, the wife of another great composer. Brahms wrote her love letters, yet she remained distant. While Schumann was alive, the two continued to correspond, but when Clara’s husband passed away, she decided to remain a faithful wife forever and cut the ties to Brahms. He destroyed all of her letters, but Clara kept his letters to her. As a result, we know about Brahms’ feelings towards Clara Schumann, but we don’t know about her feeling towards him.

This brings us to the fact that back in the 19th century, there were technical means of keeping your feelings private. However, in today’s world, people correspond in a semi-public manner or via channels that are possible to compromise. When we talk over Telegram, we think our correspondence is private, secure and encrypted, but the probability of a leak is quite high.

So, there are no means of restoring Clara Schumann’s letters, which cannot be said about your emails. Mikhaíl Bulgakov’s iconic phrase “Manuscripts don’t burn,” which was conceived well before the digital era, did have a deep metaphysical meaning, but in reality they did burn, and they burned well, and many priceless texts were lost for us forever. Today, the ‘manuscripts’ don’t burn: Google remembers everything.

Not surprisingly, the most part of our day-to-day communications are being ‘de-privatized’ and ‘publicized.’ The common trend is the following: the younger the people, the more likely they are to bring their conversations into the public sphere.

Say, two people check-in to the same place on Swarm simultaneously, which means… oops! In the past such a situation could be a perfect start to a classic sitcom: people are seen leaving the same room together and were not supposed to be seen in the first place… In today’s online world it’s a common thing.

Some people think they are smart enough not to get caught. Well, even if they succeed in hiding something from their friends, there’s big data. I think the arrival of consumer-grade behavioral big data analytics may well be around the corner.

For example, you think your partner is cheating on you. Of course, you may hire a detective who will find out the truth after weeks of work and loads of your money. Instead, you can download a $4.99 app which will scan all of your partner’s social networks, check-ins, Tweets, contacts, public online activities, ultimately creating a profile which will be compared against profiles of acknowledged cheaters. And this analysis may spot some peculiarities in his online behavior which would mean only one thing: your partner was seeing someone else.

Another example: a person does not care what they do online and what traces they leave behind. Imagine, in the future there is a program (and no doubt there will be) which would analyze online behavior of lawbreakers, and the person in question accidentally has a matching profile! It would mean a lot of trouble to them.

This trend will fuel the development of many interesting phenomena. One of them is creating fake online life. If the analysis of online activities can spot patterns in online behavior, there would inevitably be a counter-action: the imitation of online activities in order to match a needed profile (for example, living an online life of a perfectly ‘faithful husband’). As law enforcement would start to massively use online analytics for investigation activities, new ‘digital alibi’ services would emerge. This list can go on.

Moreover, many people play around with their privacy: they make public things which used to be very private. This trend of de-privatizing and de-intimizing online life is blooming: people post ‘collective selfies’, ‘bathroom looks’, celebrities post pictures of themselves at home and boast their ‘imperfect’ bodies and ‘no makeup selfies’ in ‘no-filter’ Instagrams.

Now, there is Periscope which is used to consume 40 years of livestreaming per day. Games which can make any private information public in an instant, will be proliferating. People will be trying to expressly neglect their privacy since they cannot keep it anymore.

Living in a glass house: our income is know to all

What about our finances? Well, the situation here is the same. It’s ironic, but today we have less means of hiding our wealth status (especially from the government) than we did a century ago. For example, in the Nordic Countries the value of individual traffic tickets is calculated in correlation to one’s income. If you violate speed limits, the policeman would pull you over, snap a photo of your license plate and wait for the value of your fine to be delivered over a text message. Literally, the more you earn, the more you pay.

Governments try to compile unified databases of all the citizen’s incomes (and ideally expenditures) to be able to collect taxes and fines more efficiently. Also, the information about an individual’s wealth status is increasingly actively shared between countries, making even outright geopolitical rivals share the same opinion.

Corporate income becomes increasingly transparent: for example, in the UK all corporations file in their financial reports to the Corporate House, and those reports are accessible to everyone for as little as 1 £. By paying this small admission fee, you can learn everything about the company’s financial operations, including the salaries of the top management.

In this urge of de-privatizing information, we are getting very close to a typical medieval village: houses are small, all family members sleep in the same room, doors are unlocked. Houses are very close to each other, all words are heard, all actions are seen, and everything is obvious. It’s crystal clear how much money one has, since a purchase of a new kettle is immediately known to everyone in no time.

Moreover, if you are a rich peasant and don’t contribute to the communal well-being, many nasty things can happen to you: your cow may get poisoned or your storage may be set on fire. Ultimately, you will be called on the town meeting and questioned: “See, Hans, you are obviously living above your means, so tell us where you got money to buy another horse”.

The society will teach you real transparency. The community whose demise was lamented by last century’s conservators is back. It’s comfortable to live in, it creates family-like ties, it provides support. The reverse side of the coin is lack of privacy.

What’s next, then? Well, people will be more likely to built tall walls between communities. Thus, everything will be transparent inside the wall: we all know how much Hans, Carl or Clara earns. Yet Gunter from outside the wall will never know anything about our village. The next social trend, consequently, would be communities which are absolutely transparent internally yet heavily protected from the outsiders.

The next big thing, as I see it, would be a larger number of people keen to keep their privacy, moving from a community to a community. Those ‘digital nomads’ would see their purpose in moving from one sphere of the Internet to another: from incomes in real money to incomes in cryptocurrency, from one encrypted messenger to another, as if pushing to the new frontiers and exploring no-man’s-lands. I see it as an emergence of the so-called ‘cyber-anarchists’, a new social (or maybe even religious) group.

The digital town meeting: what will happen to the political system?

Eugene Kaspersky thinks the only means of preserving the democracy as a political model is the massive deployment of digital voting technologies. The new generation of citizens is not likely to go to polling stations. In order to make them more inclined to vote, a new-generation secure authentication technology in needed, otherwise the democracy will fall and will be replaced by the new totalitarism. Many people would be excluded from the political life of the country, which will make usurping power a much easier task.

We should acknowledge: the society undergoes a period of transformation, and all attempts to preserve archaic voting methods limit people’s political abilities and provide room for manipulations. It’s time we though of how political institutions would function in a world which is getting more and more virtual.

Thus we are getting closer to digital IDs which will enable us to live a full-fledged online life.

Let’s fantasize about the features of an ideal digital ID or password, if you like. It has to be connected to your personality and your body. Not only should it serve to identify you by retina, fingerprint and other biometric parameters, it should be able to define whether you are conscious, sober, acting on a free will and independently.

However, it would mean the end of anonymity of your political views. In this brave new world, the voting process would be quite similar to the voting tradition of Appenzell Innerrhoden, the smallest Swiss canton.

In this small area inhabited by just 15,000 people, all social issues are debated on Landsgemeinde (people’s gathering). It looks very medieval: all citizen carrying an ID and some kind of weapon (whether a gun, a machine gun, or an axe) gather on a large meadow and exercise their political rights by clearly and publicly stating their position. No trace of privacy here: everyone knows others’ views and voting choices.

Brave new world: what’s next

We are about to witness truly revolutionary shifts in communication and information technologies which would transform our view on what’s public and what’s private, on the political institutions, and even on our personal values and preferences. It’s crucial we get properly prepared, in terms of both technology and ethos, and remain humans, as much as possible in our new digital world.