Friday, 3 May 2013

'Perfect' privacy, and philosophies for real life

There are five facts that you can't get away from, in real life. Kuan's Rules You have to Live with Whether You Like It or Not, or KRYLWYLIN,[1] if I may be so bold. These facts underpin all my views.

  1. TANSTAAFL, coined by legendary SF author Heinlein: there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Selfless individuals do exist, but it's not often that you'll be able to get something for nothing. Because, ultimately, people need money to live on.[2]
  2. Life is a balancing act. Possibly related to rule no. 1. Often, one person's freedom or right comes at the expense of another freedom or right - whether of a different person, or indeed the same person. Normally, I don't 'side' with either extreme. I try to find the middle ground, the half-way house that works, even if that means no one's entirely happy with it. If people call me a fence-sitter as a result, that's fine. I have padding.
  3. Life often involves shades of grey (and not always in the sense of THAT book!). Related to rule no. 2. Many things in life sit on, or are even spread across, a spectrum. They're not clearcut. Like many other people, I wish there were sharp boundaries and clear demarcations between all sorts of things, if only to make life easier for myself as a lawyer who has to try to figure out where the line goes, or more comfortable for me as a Type A person who needs to know exactly where she stands.
    But usually, those nice clean lines don't exist; life just isn't that simple. Instead of binary, all or nothing dichotomies, it's an analogue spectrum, it's shades of grey…

    (Image reproduced by kind permission of
  4. Absolutes are pretty much impossible. There are exceptions to nearly everything. (Including this rule, hence 'pretty much' and 'nearly'!).
    This also means that (again related to rules no. 2 and 3) life is rarely 100% something or other. It involves relatives, probabilities, risks - eg an 80% risk of something, or 'more likely than not'.
  5. Life isn't fair. Much as we'd like it to be. Related to 2 and 3. Living involves continual compromises, and acceptance of some things that might not be fair to one person or another, but could perhaps be compensated for in another way. Still, I believe strongly that fairness is goal free societies strive for, and should strive for.

Now, I consider myself to be a privacy advocate. Privacy is important to me personally. I try not to post too much that's non-neutral on Twitter. I tend to hide or turn away when people take photos, and I always remove tagged photos of me on Facebook.[3] The only photos of me that I've voluntarily uploaded online are ones that don't actually look like me.

Nonetheless, my views and writings are tempered by KRYLWYLIN. I feel they must be.

Just as one of my heroes, Bruce Schneier, often says that in real life there's no such thing as absolute security, so too, I have to say: in real life, there's no such thing as perfect privacy.

As Schneier says: "There's no such thing as absolute security, and any gain in security always involves some sort of trade-off." If you want 100% security, that will have to come at the expense of something else.

Similarly, if you want to insist on perfect privacy, that too will, inevitably, come at the expense of something else. Often, that something else will be freedom of speech. Or transparency. Or even money.

You can't have both perfect privacy and full freedom of expression. The crucial but complex, continuing challenge for law, and indeed society as a whole, is how to bring about better balances, make more credible compromises, than the ones we have to live with now. And that, I do believe we can achieve - as long as laws are passed in a carefully considered way that's based on evidence and a proper understanding of technology and society, rather than knee-jerk panderings to perceptions that may in fact be false.

So if you disagree with what I say or write, just bear this in mind. I'm not a sado dataprotectionist, as Martin Hoskins puts it (so then perhaps we return to rule 3…). I'm a privacy pragmatist, who believes in doable data protection. I don't advocate privacy as an absolute end in itself, something that must be protected at all costs, at the expense of everything else.

I just want to try to find a better way: not a perfect one, but at least preferable in practice.[4] It's tough, because by nature I'm a perfectionist, but I've learned the hard way that better is better than nothing.

In future, I plan to post further thoughts on this blog about some specific problems that the proposed EU General Data Protection Regulation poses for privacy pragmatists, and some supposed (or real?) privacy 'dichotomies'.


[1] That's no worse on the eye than WYSIWYG, easier to pronounce than LLANFAIRPWLLGWYNGYLLGOGERYCHWYRNDROBWLLLLANTYSILIOGOGOGOCH, and probably better than KRYLWYLIN-NILLY.

[2] Unless of course you are completely self-sufficient, with your own farm. There are exceptions to nearly everything. See rule no. 4.

[3] Although, as with many other people, there's probably the odd indiscreet photo or video somewhere. If you do come across one, that's not me, honest guv.

[4] I saw a cartoon a while back showing placards sporting slogans along the lines of, "What would we quite like to have, if it's not too much trouble?" and "When do we want it? Whenever is convenient, if that's alright". But even I am not quite that wishy-washy.