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The Privacy “Faustian Bargain”

As many of you know I recently joined my good friend Riddhiman Das in an effort to build a cryptographically powered privacy system. We’ve been joined by a small team of experts and we are working hard to build an API that will enable bulletproof privacy as a service. Why does the world need “bulletproof privacy as a service”? I’m glad you asked! The short answer is because many of our most ubiquitous online services have developed business models that depend on surveilling us, and then “monetizing” (i.e. read “selling”) the data they accumulate. Data about us – some of which is deeply personal. 

The following was prompted by the November 20, 2019 issue of “The Download” (from the people over at MIT Technology Review). Today’s issue alone refers to at least four articles regarding the loss of privacy most of us suffer due to what the first article calls the “Faustian bargain” most users are forced to make. 

The first article, from Amnesty International is a “scathing indictment of the world’s dominant internet corporations”. The paragraph that caught my attention is “This ubiquitous surveillance has undermined the very essence of the right to privacy,” the report said, adding that the companies’ “use of algorithmic systems to create and infer detailed profiles on people interferes with our ability to shape our own identities within a private sphere.” The article then quotes Amnesty International as making a recommendation that is logical, but is unfortunately inadequate “Amnesty called on governments to legally guarantee people’s right not to be tracked by advertisers or other third parties. It called current regulations — and the companies’ own privacy-shielding measures — inadequate.” Good thought, but regulations won’t do it all. Too many legislative hurdles (i.e. read “lobbyists”), and in large parts of the world the local legal systems aren’t strong enough to enforce good regulations. At TripleBlind we think the better answer is mathematically enforced cryptography that doesn’t rely on laws, rather privacy is built into the protocol. We are working to “build in” privacy preservation, and we want to give you the keys to either lock or unlock your data as you see fit. 

The second article is about a home camera system and the many ways data (i.e. read “pictures of you, your friends and whoever walks past your house”) from these devices is used. This article makes a couple points that caught my attention. First is the point about how the camera company shares data with other entities in ways that are not transparent to their customers (i.e. you and me). The second is the point that after the camera company shares that data with an undisclosed third party, the camera company no longer can control what happens to/with the data (i.e. read “undisclosed third party can use the pictures for whatever purpose or resale they want”). At TripleBlind we believe both of these positions are incorrect. We are working to build a system that allows you to control the release of the information in your data (note – I did not say “data”, I said “information in your data”) differentially – when, to whom, for what purpose, for what duration and at which price. 

The third article is what I think the authors meant to be a case of “surveillance for good”. I think most of us would say the goal (helping people with gambling disorders control their behavior) is a good one. That said – think of the privacy implications of this application – especially when the behavior in question is coupled with a “frequent player” card/id. When the casino knows who you are, and that you display behaviors that their marketing department associates with being a “good customer” how do you think they will react? There is a very good chance the casino already knows individual customer’s gambling behavior, and have tailored their marketing to that behavior. They are probably going to encourage you to visit the casino as often as possible. In the overall eco-system of individually targeted advertising intended to get customers in the casino – do you really think making some customers take a few second break will really make a difference? At TripleBlind we believe the better answer is to keep that “frequent player” card identity private, and allow the customer to control the dissemination of the data associated with it (and the advertising associated with it). 

Consider the fourth article a type of “public service announcement” from the folks at the Mozilla Foundation. It’s their “creepy rating” of various Christmas gift items. We can’t all go live in a cave or under a rock until better privacy tools arrive, but we can be vigilant and at least try to manage the privacy compromises we make everyday. 

In the meantime at TripleBlind we are working to deliver tools that will allow you to control your data, differentially release the knowledge in it and allow it to be interacted with algorithms in a way to protect both the data and the algorithm from disclosure. We believe this is going to be good for everyone. Once your privacy is cryptographically enforced you and the companies with which you do business will find even more interesting (and potentially lucrative) ways to use the ever larger and ever more granular data we produce every day. We might even find a way to change the terms of the privacy “Faustian bargain”.

I continue to believe this privacy thing is a big deal.