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The battle between public and private: Alessandro Acquisti at TEDGlobal 2013

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Stories of NSA spying have been rippling through the press in the past week or so, and Carnegie Mellon professor Alessandro Acquisti is here to tell us just how blurry the boundary between private and public has become in recent years. He begins by reminding us of the story of Adam and Eve, banished from the Garden of Eden after eating that pesky apple. Then he shows how the incident might have played out in the age of social media, showing tweets from the two protagonists. Would Eve really have written “Last nite was a blast! Loved dat apple”? It’s possible.

Acquisti suggests we are making privacy tradeoffs as a result of the analysis of big data. Privacy-cracking techniques that until recently were not available broadly are now essentially open to anyone with an Internet connection. Facial recognition, for instance, has improved exponentially in recent years. He shows a project in which he found he could take a photograph, match the face to publicly available information, and use the results to predict sensitive information such as a Social Security number. “Pushed to an extreme, you can imagine a future with strangers looking at you through Google Glass or their contact lens, and with seven or eight data points about you they could infer anything else about you,” he says.


Photo: James Duncan Davidson

He asks the obvious question: “What will this future without secrets look like? Should we care?” Simple answer: yes. Another experiment showed that those who’d posted even lightly inappropriate information on social media were actually more likely to think dimly of job applicants who’d done the same. “This is moral dissonance,” Acquisti points out, but no less influential for that. He shows two photos of a woman; in one she is holding a baby, in the other she has none. Would an HR director seeing the former picture during a social media search be subconsciously biased against hiring her? We’d like to think not; his experiment proved otherwise. So that’s both horrifying and depressing.

There’s more. Remember Minority Report, when Tom Cruise swished past advertising messages tailored specifically for him? That’s nothing. Marketers of the future will be able to scour your Facebook contacts, determine your two best friends, and then blend their portraits to form a composite photograph. So next time you’re looking to buy something, the spokesperson will be an oddly familiar, friendly face, unrecognizable but subconsciously influential. Dastardly! The audience oohs.

Current privacy mechanisms are akin to bringing a knife to a gunfight, Acquisti points out. And we’re not yet smart in thinking about the consequences of our behavior. Another experiment showed that we forget careful warnings about what will happen with our data within seconds. We need to think about alternatives, and not fall for corporate arguments that privacy is incompatible with big data. That’s nonsense.

Back to the Garden of Eden. Perhaps we should see it not as a tragic story, but more like it was in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, when Adam and Eve ate the apple to discover a sense of themselves and achieve autonomy. Sure, they had to leave Eden, but that was the price to pay for gaining freedom. Maybe we need to leave an Eden filled with free content, Angry Birds and targeted apps to understand and control our own environment. He reminds us of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which technologies invented for freedom end up coercing citizens. “One of the defining fights of our time will be the fight for control over personal information,” Acquisti concludes, and we need to be wary of being manipulated. The game is on, in other words, whether we like it or not.

[Here, watch Alessandro Acquisti on a recent edition of 60 Minutes:]

Alessandro Acquisti’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on »