Privacy? But I have nothing to hide!

Daniel Solove wrote a great article on why privacy matters even if one thinks they have nothing to hide. It is high time to dispel¬† this myth that if we’re “innocent” that we have nothing to hide.

Let me say it this way: Everyone has some information they do not want to fall into the wrong hands at the wrong time.

You may not have information you think needs to be hidden right now. But in a year, you may decide to run for office. You may have information that you are fine if your local bank sees, but you might be embarrassed if your co-workers had access to it. Otherwise, why not wear your social security number, date of birth and bank accounts on a tee-shirt?

Even if you think you have nothing personal to hide, what about those you love? Parents and grandparents, let me ask you some questions and tell me if they start to make you uncomfortable:

  • What time do your children get out of school?
  • What route to they walk home?
  • How long are they home alone?

There is a strong relationship between privacy and security. Each of the answers to these questions is technically “public” information and could in theory be learned legally by a third party who was very interested in the answers. But that doesn’t mean it’s something we’d want to share with a stranger who suddenly began asking these questions. Let’s face it. Even if we don’t care about our own privacy, surely there is someone’s privacy we do care about.

Everyone has some information they do not want to fall into the wrong hands at the wrong time.

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Movie Plot Privacy?

I talk a lot to my colleagues about privacy. Smart Grid is coming, and it’s a paradigm-changing technology much like the Internet was–and still is. By that I mean that no one was quite sure how the Internet would impact our privacy 30 years ago. We’re still learning. So it is with Smart Grid today as we try to imagine the world 30 years from now.

Smart Grid is an amazing set of technologies that could potentially change the way each of us looks at energy, the way we use it, the way we store it. Even the way we buy it.

So I sometimes tell stories about what Smart Grid might mean from a privacy perspective. One story I tell is that someday, someone with access to your energy usage data might be able to tell not only that you are watching T.V., but what you’re watching on T.V. The way a “smart” T.V. might use energy to light up pixels on a part of screen and darken them on others as it creates images to view could generate unique energy patterns and when combined with a particular model of television and other variables, could allow one to determine what movie was being watched.

For example, the movie “Die Hard” (with all its explosions at certain times in the movie) would probably have a different energy pattern than say, “Shakespeare in Love.” In theory, knowing the energy pattern generated by the T.V. would tell one what was being watched. The reaction I get when I tell this story is usually one of disbelief.

Well it turns out that this exact experiment is being done in Germany. Researchers believe that it may be possible to determine this exact sort of information from an energy customer’s usage data.

But why would a utility care about what you watch? Truth is, utilities don’t really care at all. Most utilities want to send you an accurate bill and help make you more knowledgeable about your energy consumption (plus they care about a whole lot of back end automation you would probably never see, but would make the grid even more robust and reliable.) But there are many 3rd parties that are trying to figure out how to monetize Smart Grid in other ways. Some of them might be very interested in what you watch on T.V. so they can sell you products and services they think you might like.

But there are other ways to capture this information, right?  True, but why should your Smart Grid be one of them? Privacy matters. We must all pay attention to it.

Did I tell you my story yet about how someday people may be able to determine what you’re doing on your computer based on its energy output–what you’re viewing, what you’re typing, what you’re downloading? Let’s save that one for next time.

Privacy matters.