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What Does Privacy Mean in the Information Age?

Posted by Craig H on 24 March 2009

I have long respected Bob Blakley‘s opinions on security and privacy issues (I don’t actually remember when we first met, but it would have been roughly in the mid-1990s I think).  He often defines privacy as “the ability to lie about yourself and get away with it” (see here for example, but he was saying it years before that too).  Note that his point isn’t that people should necessarily have a right to lie about themselves, but that thinking about whether they can or not is a useful way of measuring the otherwise abstract concept of privacy.

I often ponder whether we (that is, developers of mobile device software) are doing enough to help users look after their privacy.  It’s often stated that end users aren’t interested in privacy, or don’t value it appropriately.  Professor Ed Felten has written an interesting counterpoint to that view, and I think it is important that we provide users with easy-to-understand choices, so they can make rational and informed decisions about sharing their personal information.  I like to use Flickr as an example; their privacy controls are simple, understandable and widely used.  You might use Facebook as a counter-example; they have many different privacy controls and it’s not obvious (even for security professionals!) how to configure them sensibly.

An interesting case study for mobile is Google Latitude (now available in the Google Maps native client for S60 3rd Edition).  Many of my Symbian and Nokia colleagues have signed up recently, and I’ve been wondering how Bob’s definition of privacy might apply to it.   My inclination, as a security professional, is not to sign up; once you do, the fact that you may then choose not to share your location at a particular time, or with a particular person, is itself information about you.  I wonder how much privacy you might lose by implicitly sharing that information.  Think of it as a statement: “Craig is doing something that he doesn’t want you to know about” 🙂

So, this leads me to a question – can I use Google Latitude to lie about my location? It seems there is a manual “set my location” option, which is promising, but then I wonder how easy it will be for Latitude friends to tell the difference between that and GPS or cell ID-derived location. I also wonder if there’s an API I can use to update my Latitude location programmatically (I doubt anyone would ever bother with that, but it would surely be privacy-friendly to have the option).  Maybe I will sign up and have a play with it (or maybe I won’t, so you won’t be surprised if you get no response to a Latitude friend request ;-)).

What other privacy issues might there be on mobile devices (either in the OS or in applications) which we should worry about?

5 Responses to “What Does Privacy Mean in the Information Age?”

  1. Tymek Majewski said

    Re: other privacy issues
    I like think about privacy as a the top of the security pyramid, for me they are in the same basket.

    I always find it strange that “pin to unlock” approach is not the normal approach – basically anybody can access your whole phone if they can physically get it, and we store more and more sensitive data on our phones. The browser on the device will keep more an more passwords: to our bank account, password to the company’s internal web page etc.
    Not everybody will protect these passwords with a master password (if possible) etc.
    BTW. With the touchscreen we could have a gesture pin rather than a number pin…

    Plus the current OTA locking approach won’t work if someone puts your phone in a Faraday cage – then they can play with it for hours:) The example does not make sense if you want to prevent people from using your phone, but it’s is a valid (exaggerated a bit;) case when someone wants to access your data.

    Going few years to the future – my smartphone will be my debit card, my home keys, my car keys etc. Is the mobile technology ready to deal with such responsibility?

    I can see two levels here:
    1. Access to that information
    2. ‘If it’s nicked, it’s knackered’ approach needs to be applied on the data level.

  2. Craig H said

    Tymek, you make some very good points. You are surely right that unless we have reliable underlying security mechanisms, any privacy controls we put in place would be easily defeated by bad guys looking to steal and exploit personal information. I do think that it’s still important to consider why we’re implementing the security mechanisms though, so we can make sure that they are understandable and usable.

    A security mechanism that nobody uses is just a waste of space, and your device lock example is an excellent illustration of that. I do use a device lock PIN on my phone, but I am well aware that I’m an exception to the rule. It’s not just about ease of use, for people to turn it on they need to first know it’s there and also recognise the value of it, but a device lock that was easier to use (like your gesture PIN example) would certainly be used more.

    We are currently preparing the security technology roadmap for future Symbian Platform releases, and I’d love to give you a “sneaky peek” at the current draft but I’d better not yet (at least until it’s agreed with the contributors!) All I’ll say for now is, stay tuned and we may have something up our sleeves to help with that 😉

    I also take your point about wiping the device automatically if someone starts tinkering with it. I think that’s a good feature for devices where the majority of the data is synced with a server (corporate use, typically) but possibly dangerous for the average consumer who doesn’t back up their phone. They might, say, leave their phone on a table when they go for a comfort break, and if someone just picks it up and starts playing with it, they might not appreciate it being “knackered” and losing all their contacts / photos / bookmarks / etc.

    Finally, is mobile technology ready for the responsibility? Whether it is or not, people are going to be doing these critical things with their smartphones, so we’d better make sure the technology is good and ready! I happen to think that the Symbian OS platform security architecture is a very good basis, but I’m not foolish enough to imagine the job is done and we can all go and relax on a beach now 🙂

  3. […] There was an interesting mix of participants, from government and the civil service (the Home Office had the largest representation of any one organisation) to privacy advocates (Open Rights Group), industry (notably Phorm) and journalists. I wasn’t the only one who thought this might be relevant to mobile – several mobile network operators were present. There is clear potential for monitoring significantly more personal information via a mobile device carried with you, compared to a work or home PC. The first half of the seminar was largely concerned with the concept and value of online identity, and there was a good deal of discussion about how to enable informed consent by users to the use of their personal information. Predictably the regulator thought that regulation was the answer, and technologists thought that technology was the answer. The “data is the new currency” idea was wheeled out to justify a need for stronger controls. Personally, I still think that the most important thing is to provide people with simple privacy controls, as I previously mentioned. […]

  4. bob geldaf said

    All i want to know is WHAT DOES INFORMATION AGES MEAN

    • Craig H said

      Fair question! I mean that long before the Internet, businesses made money either through particular skills they controlled (like guilds, for instance) or access to natural resources (mining and so on) or by exploiting capital assets like factories or transportation. Nowadays a lot of businesses make money just by brokering information of one sort or another. The information could be copyrighted software or patented inventions for example, but more to the point here is large databases about individuals (Equifax being a good example).

      There is a reasonable definition of Information Age on wikipedia.

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