Home > All, Security Issues > Talking privacy and Facebook with Alexander Hanff

Talking privacy and Facebook with Alexander Hanff

September 17, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

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.

Alexander Hanff

Alexander Hanff, Privacy International

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.

“I started a Facebook account several years ago and I witnessed first hand how things changed – how the privacy policy changed and the settings became more complex and less user orientated. As a privacy advocate I was forced to cancel my Facebook account. I had used it as a lobbying and campaigning platform, and I miss that a great deal – I got a lot of value from Facebook, but my principles forced me to cancel my account.

“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?

Categories: All, Security Issues
  1. September 17, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Mark :

    Surely the law is key? Either you use it, or use the threat of it, against the privacy invader, or ask them to ‘please stop, you’re being rude’.

    I know what is most likely to work.

    I think we’re talking at cross purposes here. Yes, the law is potentially an important device for preventing the theft of privacy via DPI (although I’m not sure that the law has yet been tested).

    But no, the law isn’t the key issue. The key issue is the theft of my privacy, not whether it is or is not against the law. If a court case subsequently declares DPI to be perfectly legal, I’m not going to change my opinion just because me learned judge says so. The law is irrelevant to the issue. The issue is that Phorm wanted to take my privacy without my say so.

    Even the methodology is irrelevant. If Phorm’s chosen method was the rubber hose rather than DPI, I would still be agin it (probably even more so, since I’m a total wimp).

    The issue for me is privacy: it’s not the law, nor surveillance, nor interception, nor fraud, nor copyright – it’s my privacy.


  2. September 17, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    Phorm is a much bigger issue than simply a quibble over personal privacy.

    Its a question of complying with the law. Laws that should ensure the content of personal/commercial communications is not subject to covert surveillance, and even interference.

    Its a question of illegal covert interception, frauds, copyright theft, and computer misuse. On a nationwide scale.

    For a journalist its a vital issue too. Consider the confidentiality of your sources. Or the right to be paid for commercial exploitation of your creative work.


    • September 17, 2010 at 1:56 pm

      Well, I have to disagree a bit…

      Bear in mind that Alexander did not mention the word ‘Phorm’ once – I threw that into the article because I wanted to. The article is not about Phorm. But having said that, for me, Phorm really is about privacy; my privacy. Technically it may be about covert surveillance and illegal interception – but the point about surveillance and interception is that it leads to a loss of privacy. The argument about copyright surely is a technical argument used to defeat Phorm; breach of copyright is still ultimately a breach of the copyright owner’s privacy.

      So, frankly, it bothers me not one jot that Phorm breaks the law (or not, since it is not yet tested in a court of law); what bothers me is that Phorm wants to steal my privacy. That it breaks the law (possibly) is a possible way to defeat it. And protect my privacy.


      • Mark
        September 17, 2010 at 6:28 pm

        Surely the law is key? Either you use it, or use the threat of it, against the privacy invader, or ask them to ‘please stop, you’re being rude’.

        I know what is most likely to work.


  1. December 18, 2010 at 2:17 am
  2. September 18, 2010 at 3:17 am
  3. September 17, 2010 at 8:04 pm

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