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Latanya Sweeney and rethinking transparency

Latanya Sweeney urges us to rethink the challeges of privacy. She’s worked in the space for ten years and tells us that thinking about privacy in terms of the design of public spaces is a helpful and useful conceptual shift. We tend to look at the digital world in terms of physical spaces. In digital spaces, though, we can often look at someone from different perspectives in parallel spaces, and we can learn things about you that might be considered to be “private”, hidden behind some sort of a wall.

She prefers to talk about semi-public and semi-private spaces, and to consider the tension between privacy and utility. It’s not one or the other, but the sweet spot between the two. She’s rethinking privacy, particulary around the topic of big data: pharmacogenomics, computational social science, national health databases. This movement towards the analysis of huge data sets forces us to rethink within legacy environments. How do we de-identify data? What does informed constent and notice mean in these spaces? And we’re rethinking at architectural levels, too – moving towards a realm of open consent and privacy-protecting marketplaces.

Open consent has been popularized by George Church at the Harvard Medical School. Rather than asking consent or making promises or guarantees, he gives you a contract where you sign away liability, because considering future risks is simply too hard. It sounds kooky, but a thousand people have signed up. Another model is a trade secret model – what if I treat your genomic data as a trade secret? As long as I keep it private, you’re exempt from liability – release it and all bets are off. We might also think of data sharing marketplaces where we insulate participants from harm and compensate them when it occurs.

We need to think through these components:

Data subjects – we need to think through the possibility of economic harm to these actors, in part because humans tend to discount risks around privacy

Technology developers – some of these developers are her students, and she urges them to think about the power over privacy and technology decisions they exert. Video recorders record sound and video, and sound is hard to mute. As a result, videotaping often pushes us against wiretapping laws… and this could have been moderated with a $0.01 cost decision


Belief systems

Benefit structures

and Legacy environments

Zeynep Tufekci asks Sweeney to talk through the question of belief systems and false tradeoffs. She suggests that debates have a false belief that you’re trying to maximize privacy or utility – the key is a relationship between the two.