“Privacy” – An Unfortunate 2013 Buzzword

We’re a full week into 2014, and perhaps the first realization I had of the new year is how more than almost any other technology trend in 2013, we found ourselves talking about privacy. SiliconBeat is one of my preferred technology blogs, and the folks over there post articles with the word “privacy” in the title at what feels like a daily clip sometimes. The ever-growing social media craze as well as an emerging peer-to-peer industry may be the biggest catalysts of our privacy and safety on the internet becoming such a frequent topic of conversation Instead of analyzing it from that angle, I find it best to look to two of the more significant events in 2013 Internet privacy in terms of what we’ll think of first: The Edward Snowden incident and the recent Snapchat security breach.

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From Russia with love?

I recall I was spending time abroad in Madrid when Snowden first leaked the government documents. Snowden himself was not what scared us, nor really was it the documents he leaked. What instilled fear was the ideas the documents represented – that our own government was both hiding information from us, and looking at our own hidden information. They were violating our privacy, which was awful, while they also were keeping some information private from us, which was somehow also awful. From an ocean away, it all felt like a strange, knee-jerk heavy controversy. I found myself leaning toward the freedom of information stance at the time – I didn’t particularly care if the government was occasionally snooping around if it meant we were safer (Were we though? I don’t really know and I probably never will), but I wanted to know what was going on.

So I took the anti-privacy stance, correct? On the surface, yes, it seems that way. But then we consider the fact that any sort of email tracking by the government means one of two things – that your Googles and your Yahoos were either completely compliant or completely incompetent. Neither of those scenarios is a particularly good one. Evidence of tech companies complying with the government’s surveillance efforts launched months of speculation and debate. The efforts of one Washington Post reporter to attach names to those tech companies had firms with big data – from Facebook to Google to Microsoft – scrambling and confused. The effects from the Snowden reports on technology companies were significant and wide-ranging, and the report was essentially when privacy became a hot topic. My supposedly anti-privacy stance of letting the government snoop around freely is in many ways a pro-privacy stance for the technology companies. The old saying that “any press is good press” just seems like it can’t possibly apply here – how are these companies able to continue their innovative ways we’ve grown to love if the public is suddenly out for blood? How is Google Glass supposed to be the way of the future like we want it to be when bars are going to ban their use?

Fast forward six months, to an unfortunate development in the “tech companies as completely incompetent rather than completely compliant” narrative: The Snapchat breach. It’s recent enough that we all know the story – right before the end of 2013, anonymous hackers backdoor their way into the Snapchat databases and released the usernames and phone numbers of approximately 4.6 million Snapchat users. Snapchat, love it or hate it, was a 2013 staple. The Verge reported that the hackers sought “to raise the public awareness around [the security breach], and also put public pressure on Snapchat to get this exploit fixed”. Even Snapchat wasn’t safe from the privacy and security debate. If there’s an obvious gap in a widely-used program’s code, it should be fixed. But do the hackers seek to make such a statement if we’re not already talking incessantly about everybody’s privacy and security on the internet? “Security matters as much as user experience does”, the hackers added.

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It seemed an unfortunately appropriate wrap-up to a year where privacy was the word on everyone’s lips. Security and privacy is certainly important – we all find ourselves saying that more than ever after 2013. All I heard about, though, was the supposed privacy issues themselves. Did anything ill occur as a result of the Snapchat hackers? The Snowden documents? It would seem at least that nothing tragic has occurred yet because of these breaches of privacy. Has our government turned on you with the information they may or may not have on you? I’ll be the first to say that I don’t know for sure that nothing bad has happened as a result of 2013’s privacy craze, but I’ll also be the first to say this year as a whole gave me a very paranoid vibe. Did we raise hell about privacy in 2013 because we legitimately thought we were in some kind of danger, or was it because we wanted something to raise hell about? I mean, I have nothing to hide, none of this ever legitimately scared me.

A better question: Why am I talking about it now when we’ve put 2013 behind us? Those who forget even the most recent history are doomed to repeat it, of course, and I simply don’t want to have another year of discussing privacy instead of innovation. I want to know whether Bitcoin is ever going to catch on. I want to know how long it is until I can afford Google Glass. I want to know if the next iPhone will actually bring anything new to the table. I don’t want to know why everyone’s afraid of Snapchat, I want to know if Snapchat’s going to go public, or which 2014 startup is going to be the next Snapchat. Everyone’s got their opinion, and maybe privacy just isn’t as important to me as it should be. Let us just ask, though, before we start raising hell about the same trite privacy questions to the point that we’re wearing tin foil hats: Don’t we want to keep moving forward and innovating more than we want to stymie our innovators with privacy (non) issues?

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