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?