The Privacy Identity Innovation (pii) conference is THE eclectic gathering of wonks, geeks, and suits. Seattle was lucky to host the third pii event last week. pii was lucky to score the most beautiful weather Seattle has offered since last September. I was lucky enough to attend and participate. Win-win-win.
A Growing Privacy-Industrial Complex
The theme of my pii lightning talk was a call for balance amidst a growing privacy-industrial complex (slides, video) — a term first coined by Jeff Jarvis last year. The privacy industry is comprised of professionals from legal, compliance, risk, ethics, audit, security, and operations. Since 2000, it has been growing at nearly 50% annually; growth that would make any CEO blush.
Sure, privacy professionals are certainly necessary but hardly sufficient to guide us through this burgeoning era of social media. Their background is often too specialized and too isolated from where technical innovation occurs. Privacy professionals need to be agile across the entire organization and have a strong voice throughout the product lifecycle. Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth.” That place can’t only be in the General Counsel’s office.
Also, as President Eisenhower warned with regard to the military-industrial complex, there’s a risk of survival bias. So, as privacy regulations grow in complexity, more privacy professionals will be needed. For example, how much work has been created to understand and comply with the new E.U. Cookie Directive that can be enforced starting May 26? Why must every privacy nail be hit with a regulatory hammer?
The Pursuit of Balance
The metaphor for my talk, was Da Vinci’s iconic Vitruvian Man. The proportioned body, tender heart, and insightful mind of Vitruvius offers interesting parallels into the struggles we’re facing in the privacy world today.
The technologist is the forceful arms and legs that drive innovation. The humanitarian — philosopher, journalist, economist, anthropologist, and historian — is the heart that tempers the restless drive to innovate. And, it is the mind, which must balance the body and the heart. But balance is not a condition, it’s a pursuit like the one we know from that peculiar Epicurean phrase in the Declaration of Independence: “pursuit of happiness”.
In his 1967 treatise Privacy and Freedom, Alan Westin said: “Each individual is continually engaged in a personal adjustment process in which he balances the desire for privacy with the desire for disclosure and communication of himself to others.” Prescient.
A Balanced Discourse…
Preceding my pii talk was Andrew Keen, whose new book Digital Vertigo, strikes just such a humanitarian chord. Andrew, in his interview with Larry Downes, described today’s technology as a MacGuffin — a literary device that drives the characters but not the plot. He argues that technology is driving us but we need to look through it in order to see where this plot is really going.
The following day, Microsoft’s Marc Davis talked about how we might move from digital feudalism to enlightenment by wrapping personal information in metadata to better control it within the public, joint, and private spheres — a subject I’ve written about here. Marc has proposed an information metadata system to move us into such a digital enlightenment. Might this be a step in the right direction?
Marc challenged my contention that privacy might never be solved (see my comments on the Data Protection panel at ~10:12). Well, even though no one has proven that privacy is an NP-hard problem, I stand by my statement that privacy is very complex because people are complex (and their language is, too).
The discourse also included a lively exchange on Twitter at #pii2012. Check it out.
#pii2012 Final Thoughts
As Larry Lessig taught us, “Code is Law”. And since the law encodes our society’s values, technology’s code and humanity’s values are deeply intertwined. We can’t separate them any more than we can separate our body from our mind from our heart.
pii has proven a great venue for spirited, informed, and respectful debate. Too often, we fall into this gotcha, zero-sum game of ad hominem attacks and scare tactics that does a disservice to the profound journey we’re on. Impassioned argument is the friction that sharpens the ax of progress. If we are to find a wise path forward, this discourse between technologists and humanitarians must continue.