Surveillance & The Spider-Man Principle


Pete Souza/White House via Twitter

US privacy is rooted in the right to freedom from intrusions by the state, especially in one’s own home”

As questions surrounding NSA surveillance activities continue to devour headlines, consumers are asking more questions about their privacy. Amidst the sensationalist cries that we’re witnessing the emergence of a new military industrial open source Big Data complex some long-present legitimate concerns are now getting attention. Among them: The lack of meaningful choices consumers have with respect to controlling their personal information across the web. But upon surveying the technological landscape, it’s not all despotism and woe. In fact, several tech innovators have identified a choice-sized-gap in the market, and they’re ready to meet the demand. The race to empower consumers to take control of their data is now underway.

Big data tools like Flume, Hbase, and Hadoop are creating new privacy challenges due to the increased scale of data ingestion and analysis they engender. When used in concert with one another, tools like these enable the near-real-time capture and analysis of information across petabytes of data [1024 Megabytes = 1 Gigabyte, 1024 Gigabytes = 1 Terabyte, and 1024 Terabytes = 1 Petabyte]. As governments and enterprises deploy these tools with global impact, they’re navigating divergent cultures and conceptions of privacy.

Before I was a privacy professional I was a bit of a data wonk. In the mid-oughts I worked across several data intensive roles at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.’s (WMT) Home Office…and by 2007, things were radically changing. The modeling and analysis one could perform in a simple spreadsheet took an exponential step forward as Excel 2007 grew 1400% from 65,536 rows to 1,000,000 rows. Although the consumer insights from those million row spreadsheets often gave me pause, they’re myopic when juxtaposed against today’s big data analytics and multi-billion row databases.


depotismMultinational enterprises must recognize the fact that privacy is not a universal principle when collecting and analyzing individuals’ data on this scale. And they’d do well to avoid making statements like ‘We want to know who every person in the world is.’

Various laws aside, different cultures have very different conceptions of privacy. Yale Law Professor James Whitman has aptly identified contemporary concepts of privacy and how they differ between the U.S. and the European continent stating: ‘The core continental privacy rights are rights to one’s image, name, and reputation, and what Germans call the right to informational self-determination ‘the right to control the sorts of information disclosed about oneself.’ Alternatively, the American notion of privacy is rooted in ‘the right to freedom from intrusions by the state, especially in one’s own home…maintaining a kind of private sovereignty within our own walls.’ With conceptions of privacy varying across the West, it’s understandable that a significant number of individuals across the globe are not interested in American-based businesses knowing who they are.

Before government agencies and private enterprises marshal their data science teams to ‘Go take that hill!’ they must thoughtfully weigh their options. As originally penned by Voltaire: (and popularized by Spider-Man) “With great power comes great responsibility.” In the private sector, many industry-leading entities like WMT have established teams of privacy professionals driving that responsibility. With respect to the aforementioned NSA surveillance, President Obama has responded by appointing Privacy Hawk Peter Swire to the government’s NSA Review Panel. You may scoff at a label like ‘privacy hawk’, but Professor Swire commands respect across the privacy industry as an unabashed proponent of both the IV Amendment and of practical measures like affirmative consent (or ‘opt-in’ … a four letter word to many big-data-types with reasonable concerns that it might stifle innovation).

Opting-in requires informed consent (e.g., reading an agreement and checking a box). It can help organizations avoid pitfalls like last year’s backlash against the Target Corporation for discovering that a teen girl was pregnant before her father did. Although Target didn’t do anything unlawful, its misstep underscored the fact that many individuals are alarmed at the notion of any large entity turning a powerful looking glass their way.

The debate over big data and surveillance is nothing new. Talking heads with an opinion on the matter abound. Many propose more robust laws to better protect consumers. Others argue that self-regulation is the solution. All the while, some clever innovators have been hard at work in their labs, quietly building the next generation of tools that will put consumers in control of their data.


One such innovator is windy city entrepreneur Alen Malkoc and his enterprise: Optyn. Optyn uses proxy and de-identification protocols that allow consumers access to services that would otherwise require a personal email address. Then there’s Boston based Abine, an unlikely alliance of data, finance, and policy wonks with an impressive line of tools including DoNotTrackMe, DeleteMe, and MaskMe. They’ve been on a media tear as of late across outlets like Yahoo, Mashable, and

As more choice platforms emerge and big data fueled challenges evolve, solutions will arise from the public and private sectors alike. I find Intel Global Privacy Officer David Hoffman’s argument particularly convincing that “[i]mproved laws can provide a backstop of protection, while innovators work to provide mechanisms for individuals to take more control of their data”.

The technological trends of big data and choice are in play. The unmistakably American sensibilities that abhor State intrusions have awakened larger privacy concerns. The question is: Are we ready to take responsibility and claim our right to informational self-determination, or are we ‘out to lunch’…checking into our favorite spots on Foursquare?

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