Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Is Privacy Overrated?

Recently I noticed an interesting trend among people I know. I am not sure how to express it in full other than by giving you a few examples.

I few people I know have WEP/WPA encryption turned off on their wireless routers. They claim they do not really care if someone is using their Internet connection. Warning them about potential security issues with strangers breaking through Windows networking, lurking around inside of their computers looking for credit card numbers did not raise as much of a concern as I expected. Not as much as it used to anyway. How did they explain it? Apparently they cannot stand the hassle of dealing with passwords for every WiFi device that makes its way into their house, especially for those that do not have keyboards.

I also knew quite a few people, especially older relatives, who never managed to put their family photos online because they felt it was silly to have your private life exposed for everyone to see on the Internet. The issue was not technical: they have always known how to upload photos. But more and more of them are getting Picasa and Flickr accounts and upload their pictures now. They changed their mind.

Meanwhile I was approached by more than one person asking me to "build something" that will liberate them from logging into tens of web sites every day. Apparently all mainstream browsers are still not helpful it with all those "remember-your-password" features.

Don't you find it strange? While tech media cannot get enough of identity theft stories and companies like Micorsoft get hammered by online press almost weekly for yet another exposed security hole in IE, real customers, real people (around me at least), seem to care about those things less and less. A while ago people used to call GPS feature on their cell phones spooky because "anyone would be able to track me wherever I am" but look what really happened: even without GPS you see thousands of happy Twitter users announcing their every step to anyone who'll listen.

Do we Really Care about Privacy?

Privacy is a broad term and I prefer to think more of online anonymity. Back in early Internet years there was a lot more excitement about coolness of being anonymous. Expressing yourself, letting your voice be heard by thousands without fear of reprisals from an employer or your government was how the whole idea of the Internet was perceived by many who never heard of it before.

Fast forward to 2007 and let me ask you: Do you really want to listen to what Mr. Anonymous has to say? Have you noticed how meaningless and short, if not offensive, anonymous comments usually are? Well, enough about others, think of your own experience. Do you like to be anonymous? Really? Think of every time when a web application wants you to log in again and again, whenever you receive spam, whenever you type your name and credit card number the millionth time in your life or whenever your browser pops up a message with something about cookies or submitting insecure data to "scary Internet". And I haven't even asked the web developers. How fun is it for them to deal with anonymous visitors. Don't you find online anonymity simply annoying at times?

Does online anonymity really buy us anything?

I wonder how it would be like if DHCP did not exist?

Nobody is ever Anonymous. Try to imagine an absolutely unique "IP address" assigned to every person on earth immediately after birth. You add that ID to their connection IP address along with ID of the device they are accessing the net. No need to log in, if you are online, "the Internet" already knows who you are. This gives us an incredible accuracy at identifying who and when gets access to what. Sounds like a nightmare doesn't it? That is some scary future that Hollywood warned us about in "Minority Report" huh?

But how different it really is from what we already have? After all, we're not really anonymous. Interested parties (think RIAA) will get you even though they still need to get a court order to squeeze your real address out of your ISP. Imagine the state of affairs in North Korea, how anonymous their Internet users really are?

It seems to me that we are getting all the headaches of the anonymous Internet without any real anonymity. And judging by what people around me are saying, I would suggest that annoyances of online anonymity are eclipsing the fake sense of security it provides.

Don't you think that "scary future" is not that scary but rather convenient? Or am I being naïve?

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