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Is privacy dead?

Jay Cline | Jan. 7, 2014
Revelations in 2013 about NSA surveillance and the power of big-data analytics suggest the age of privacy is over. But a new 'privacy death index' places us far from the tipping point.

If this sounds like a far-fetched sci-fi novel, it should. The technical and legal apparatus needed to make it happen are present today only in an embryonic state. Many more technical advances would be required to produce that scenario, as well as a significant erosion in the laws that the NSA's former top lawyer calls stupid.

This is not to say the lovers of privacy and liberty are wrong in their concerns. I just think they're ahead of their time when they suggest that things have crossed a tipping point and are out of control.

But how far down the path to privacy oblivion are we? To help answer that question, I'd like to propose a privacy death index. It maps the three features of a zero-privacy world with the six high-impact data vectors outlined above. Then it assigns a simple numeric value to each of the 18 intersections — or "privacy-threat vectors" — based on what's happening in the current state.

In the table below, I've proposed values for the U.S. on Sept. 10, 2001, compared with the U.S. in 2014. But this model could be applied to any country.

If this table is anywhere in the ballpark, what does it tell us? Both sides of the privacy-is-dead debate will find that it buttresses their own argument. Converting these scores to a 100-point scale, the U.S. Privacy Death Index stood at a mere 13 prior to the 9/11 attacks and subsequent passage of the Patriot Act. In 2014, that index is perched at 37, a near tripling. Privacy hawks are right to sense that we've moved a long ways in the past decade.

But 37 isn't even halfway toward 100, and not one of the 18 privacy-threat vectors has hit the high-impact level 3. Nearly all of the easy advances appear to have been made, driven by the adoption of mobile devices, social media and big data.

Looking ahead, improvements in big-data analytics should take us closer to the midpoint of 50 on the privacy death index. But the path from 50 to 100 — the death of privacy — is littered with legal and constitutional obstacles. Traveling this path would require a governmental encroachment into the personal space not seen even in revolutionary colonial times.

I agree that some privacy laws are stupid and poorly written. But the vast majority of them compose the architecture of trust that is essential for American technical innovations to thrive.


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