When I was in college, I got my first MacBook and spent days loading the entirety of my cd collection into my iTunes library. I was amazed at how easy it was to scroll through my albums, and play songs from different artists at the click of my finger. But, my favorite feature was music library sharing. Sitting in the student center hooked up to my campus wifi, I could scroll through the music libraries of strangers (and friends!) who happened to be connected at the same time. This feature gave me a sneaky thrill; I was getting a glimpse inside the music libraries of strangers, and allowing others to see my collection too, something I considered a very personal part of my identity. While there are parts of my library I would happily blast over speakers at a party, there are other less-then-hip parts that I reserve for singing in the shower. Letting strangers see all of that without ever having met me, and being able to see their libraries, was a strange but exciting experience. It made me aware of just how important trust was in opening up parts of ourselves to new audiences through new kinds of personal technologies.
Five years later, I was working away at my desk at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, blissfully unaware that my my graduate colleagues and professors could see my entire music library. My friend Joe swiveled around in his chair and asked, “Is your iTunes library called ‘freaking awesome music’?” With blood rushing to my cheeks, I covered my face with my hands in embarrassment. After focusing back in on him, he grinned and said, “I didn’t know you liked Abba!”
This story was in the front of my mind when I went to Brookings to hear Brad Smith, Microsoft’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel, talk about his company’s approach to privacy. The entire talk was excellent, but there were a few points that especially bear repeating:
1. Snowden, Manning and the NSA weren’t the first.. conflicts over privacy and trust have played an important historical role in shaping us throughout our history. Since the writs of assistance that allowed British officers to search colonists homes for customs violations without probable cause inspired the Fourth Amendment, tension over the limits of personal information and government power have defined our public debates about privacy (see 7:15 in the video).
2. The NSA doesn’t really take “no” for an answer…Smith detailed Microsoft’s refusals to comply with FISA court requests, and their subsequent lawsuits against the government to be allowed to disclose the kinds of information they were asked for. Smith powerfully asserted that, “Congress needs to close the door on unfettered bulk collection of data” and to “clarify the role, nature and proceedings of the FISA court”.
3. The increasing adoption of and sophistication of smart phone technologies has the potential to turn us all into wearers of Martha Stewart style “ankle bracelets”! Smith pointed out that without the proper knowledge on the part of consumers and the respect of their users privacy on the part of tech companies, we will find ourselves in highly unequal relationships of power (more so then we already are).
4. National privacy legislation is long overdue – as much as we Americans usually hate to look for guidance to Europe, they were ahead of us in tackling these issues legislatively and we should take note.
5. Trust is a necessary condition of tech use – but it’s not built on notice and consent agreements! Smith pointed out (after a question from yours truly) that people usually trust until something goes wrong. Using the example of the 3 Mile Island, he observed that it’s precisely the tendency to trust our technologies that often prevents a critical discussion of their implications in public before bad things happen (see 1:00:04).