August 05, 2010

New Comments by Google's CEO Eric Schmidt Trigger Privacy Concerns

Greetings. I have enormous respect for Google's CEO Eric Schmidt. Among his various positive attributes is his ability and willingness to openly speak his mind on controversial topics.

Occasionally though, Eric's remarks (which of course do not unilaterally represent Google official corporate policy) stray into regions where they can possibly be misinterpreted in the absence of full context, leading some observers to characterize them in such cases as perhaps being a bit "shot from the hip" -- and triggering some consternation among the public (and, I would suspect, sometimes within Google itself as well).

During a CNBC interview late last year, when Eric suggested that, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place" -- there were loud condemnations from many quarters. But at the time I pointed out that in full context it was clear that he was referring to criminal and other obviously inadvisable acts. (If you're 12 years old, posting photos of your boozing party on Facebook is probably a really bad idea.)

In any case, some new public comments by Eric -- most of which -- with one major exception -- I tend to agree with, seem to be triggering a new firestorm.

Fundamentally, his recent Lake Tahoe speech suggested that, by and large, the public as a whole isn't really ready for the implications of the ongoing technology and information revolution, especially in terms of the vast quantities of user-generated data that is now filling disks around the world. This is undeniably true and a matter of major continuing concerns.

Eric also noted (perhaps with a small dose of hyperbole) how the convergence of digital imagery and artificial intelligence techniques were yielding the ability to produce potentially invasive predictions about people and their movements. This is also definitely a realistic scenario -- now in some cases, and even more so in the very near future.

But it was these new comments by Eric that have triggered the most reaction:

"The only way to manage this is true transparency and no anonymity. In a world of asynchronous threats, it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you. We need a [verified] name service for people. Governments will demand it."

This is where my disagreement comes into play, as regular readers will have guessed by my previous statements in Why the New Federal "Trusted Internet Identity" Proposal is Such a Very Bad Idea, Saving Internet Anonymity -- The Struggle is Joined, and other discussions.

It's important to parse Eric's words pretty carefully. He doesn't explicitly endorse the Federal Identity proposal which I (and many others) have so strongly criticized. But his call for a verified name system suggests his possible support for what is generally called "pseudo-anonymity." As I noted in the essays referenced above, the ability of such systems to be "unwound" to reveal true identities -- for purposes both ostensibly laudable or genuinely evil, are of significant concern, as is the vulnerability of most identity systems to be "gamed" by criminals for their own purposes, to the potential serious detriment of innocent parties. The development of systems that cannot be so manipulated is an area of continuing (and fascinating) research.

Even given that anonymity can indeed be abused, regimes encompassing the goal of "no anonymity" signal the death knell for open political criticisms, whistleblowers, and all manner of other legitimate speech and civil rights.

I trust that Eric Schmidt did not actually mean to suggest that an Internet devoid of all anonymity in all circumstances -- with the array of major negative aspects that this would imply -- is actually his preferred model.

But I do hope that he clarifies his statement on this topic, and I of course welcome dialogue with him or anyone else on the complex issues of anonymity, pseudo-anonymity, identity systems, and associated matters -- as relates both to the Internet and beyond.


Posted by Lauren at August 5, 2010 12:38 PM | Permalink
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