Can Exposing Personal Info Preserve Privacy?

Opinion: One of the leaders of the World Wide Web Consortium suggests that the best way to advance privacy values may be to make personal information available to everyone.

What if information—even information we now consider private or secret—were public and easily available? Making it subject to scrutiny by not just those who need it—lenders, law enforcement, doctors or government agencies—but everyone whos curious? That dramatic approach, says Danny Weitzner, technology and society domain leader at the World Wide Web Consortium, may be the best way to preserve privacy in the digital age.

Weitzners push, in speeches and on his blog, for what he calls the "transparent enterprise" makes a wacky kind of sense. After all, more and more information is recorded and stored about our movements, our preferences, our finances and our physical health every day.

A "smart" building with energy-saving heat and light sensors collects information about an employees work habits and hours. It could easily be compared to that workers online activity, giving an employer or supervisor a new look at how business is being conducted. A Congressman or Senator with a name similar to those under government scrutiny can be barred from boarding an airplane. Credit records can be demolished in a keystroke and that information moved through an interconnected system in only a few days. Genetic tests can be used by insurance agencies to price or review policy holders data.

The collection of this information isnt going to stop. In some cases, its a byproduct of a world where the benefits—safer air travel, better health care, saving energy—are welcome. Its only as computerized systems develop and begin interacting that the side effect—a lack of privacy—is apparent.

To the frustration of almost everyone involved, discussions about privacy concerns have focused on restricting the collection of information with the occasional attempt to ban sharing or transfer of data from one entity to another. These often complicated "opt-out" or "opt-in" policies, the lengthy notifications and the paperwork have, to no ones surprise, been fraught with difficulty.

Next week, in fact, a federal appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments about the potential conflicts between privacy legislation enacted last year in California and a federal statute on credit reporting. Banks and other credit-related businesses claim they are subject to federal law, which has fewer restrictions on how they handle customer information. Privacy advocates are urging the court to give primacy to state law, which has more restrictions.

The political arguments are complicated by a simple but unavoidable fact: People often freely give away a great deal of information without hesitation. So while privacy advocates, particularly those steeped in tech, talk about restricting the collection of information, the businesses and other concerns that have the data argue that their established practices meet with customer approval and cooperation. Success has, as you might expect, been hit or miss.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read about the ongoing e-mail privacy debate.

"The real driver" for a wholesale look at privacy policies, Weitzner said in a talk last month at the University of California, Berkeley, "is there are just a whole bunch of rules—all over the place."

His proposal could very well cut through the current squabbling and get some realistic laws and policies on the books. In essence, Weitzner, a lawyer with a long record of civil liberties advocacy, is reminding us of an old cliché: Information really does want to be free. Its what is done with the information thats often the problem.

Weitzner isnt proposing any specific remedies—not yet, anyway—and hes well aware of the changes and compromises his proposal entails. But his belief that transparency offers the safer guarantee for privacy isnt without its appeal. First, it would accept the fact that banks, government agencies, airlines and ISPs already know a great deal about our lives. Rather than try to take back that information—which is what many privacy advocates, knowingly or not, attempt to do with legislation—Weitzner would place bans on how the information is used.

A good existing example is the Federal Election Commissions lists of political contributions. Information about whos given to what political campaigns and causes is available free to the public, online or at the commissions Washington office. But no one is permitted to use that information for commercial purposes. Its there, anyone can see it, but no one can use it to make money.

Earlier this year, many people who had donated to political campaigns found to their annoyance that their addresses had been included in FundRaces online map of contributions, broken down by zip code. That may be the look of the future, Weitzner suggests. "We may have to embrace greater exposure of personal information in order to advance fundamental privacy values," he says. "If were all exposed, arent we going to be more tolerant of exposure?"

Weitzner doesnt pretend to have all the answers to the issues that will be raised. But hes started a new way to frame an important debate, one thats going to be with us—legally, politically and socially—for some time.

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