Talking privacy and Facebook with Alexander Hanff
Alexander Hanff is the Head of Ethical Networks at Privacy International. He is also one of my heroes for the way in which he led the fight against Phorm and its deep packet inspection (DPI) intrusive behavioural profiling. I have no doubt that Phorm will return in a different form, a different name, a different company even – but the idea will persist and return. And I have no doubt that Alexander Hanff will be waiting and will fight on our behalf again. He believes in the right to privacy; and he campaigns for it.
But is there much point in campaigning, I asked him. He, and I, and most of the readers of this blog have concerns over the erosion of privacy. “But most people just don’t care.”
“I would say the opposite is true, actually,” he replied. “Over the past couple of years people have become far more concerned over privacy, and have taken action to make sure that others are aware of their concerns over their privacy. In my experience, people are more concerned and aware about privacy now than they ever have been.”
I pressed the point. “Surely not. Doesn’t the success of Facebook, with its cavalier attitude towards our privacy, prove the opposite?”
“Facebook is guilty of what we call bait and switch. Initially when it first launched it was very private, very focused on privacy. It was for closed groups or closed communities of individuals. The original privacy settings in Facebook were very robust – but as time has gone on they’ve changed that. As users, we can get caught up in a situation where we have an active participation and an active stake in something like Facebook – like a lot of friends and family and people we haven’t seen for many years that we keep in touch with – giving that up in the light of privacy issues becomes a very difficult situation to be faced with.
“But it’s different for other people. Other people may feel that they don’t want to give up the benefits they get from Facebook, and they just hope that regulators and privacy commissions will handle the privacy issues for them. It’s not so much that people aren’t worried about Facebook, it’s more a case of people not initially being aware of the situation, and then developing a stake that is difficult to just abandon.”
Basically, Hanff believes that people need help to protect their privacy: that businesses should not be allowed to gather personal information surreptitiously (like Phorm’s deep packet inspection); and that giving up privacy should be an opt-in condition (not opt-out as in Facebook). He believes that education is key to achieving this.
I think he’s right; and I’m grateful that there are people like Alexander Hanff who will campaign for my privacy rights on my behalf. But it raises one of those bleeding-heart questions that continually plague me. What if we’re wrong? What if Zuckerberg is right? What if people really don’t care about their privacy? What right then do we have to try to persuade them otherwise? The question is simple: at what point does ‘education’ become social engineering on a massive scale: an erudite few trying to change the lifestyle opinions of the unenlightened masses who simply don’t agree with us?