April 16, 2018

Finding Balance in the Quest for Privacy

Privacy is incredibly important to me. It’s what stops bad guys from being able to commit identity fraud. It’s what stops dictatorships from eliminating dissent, and allows whistleblowers to stand against corruption. It’s the concept that allows people to live a life free of persecution for their religions, their sexualities, or even their literary preferences.

Alas, there’s a murkier side to privacy; the side that allows the bad guys to do their thing, the one that covers up horrific abuses, and cloaks abhorrent plots to disrupt, kill and maim.

So in this modern world - where predators and aggressors can plot in secret - how do we take in to account the needs of those of us who need their privacy?

Adding perspective to quite an emotive topic.

As much as I value my privacy, and appreciate that my desire for privacy is trivially minor compared to those taking on dangerous regimes or discussing prohibited topics in dictatorial and oppressive environments, I can concede that there are many issues with granting people complete anonymity.

It’s perhaps human nature’s greatest flaw that when given the tools to do great things, we often pervert them and find darker uses. Be that nation states and their unquenchable thirsts for weaponry, or individuals who disseminate materials of child abuse or terrorism. When you view technology through this lens it can become quite easy to disregard the legitimate scenarios where adequate privacy is pivotal to someone’s safety.

For those who don’t believe that such matters effect them, consider who may find power tomorrow, and what their motives may be. The world has very few certainties, and there’s little to say that your safety will be guaranteed in the future as it is now.

Finding Balance

The fundamental issue is that there’s no way for technology to determine whether a user is legitimate, or whether their intentions are good or bad. Arguably it’s impossible for a human to do either.

Similarly, if you introduce weaknesses in these technologies for the noble cause of preventing terror, or disrupting the dissemination of child pornography, there’s no way of preventing those very same weaknesses being exploited by dictatorships, criminals, or even nefarious private corporations.

Not to mention, quite often - as tends to be the case in asymmetric encryption - such weaknesses are mathematical impossibilities anyway.

In today’s interconnected society, this will be - if its not already - one of the biggest ethical dilemmas of our time. The moral questions over privacy are more pressing - and more immediate - than those of AI or workplace automation.

And honestly? I’m not sure if there will ever truly be a suitable answer or an adequate solution. It all seems a bit complex really.

© Fergus In London 2019

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