Cybersecurity

The philosopher whose fingerprints are all over the FTC's new approach to privacy

PALO ALTO -- A mile or two away from Facebook's headquarters in Silicon Valley, Helen Nissenbaum of New York University was standing in a basement on Stanford's campus explaining that the entire way that we've thought about privacy on the Internet is wrong.

It was not a glorious setting. The lighting was bad. The room was half empty. Evgeny Morozov was challenging her from the back of the room with strings of tough, almost ludicrously detailed questions.

Nissenbaum's March presentation was part of Stanford's Program on Liberation Technology and relied heavily on her influential recent research, which culminated in the 2010 book, Privacy in Context, and subsequent papers like "A Contextual Approach to Privacy Online."

But the most important product of Nissenbaum's work does not have her byline. She's played a vital role in reshaping the way our country's top regulators think about consumer data. As one measure of her success, the recent Federal Trade Commission report, "Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change," which purports to lay out a long-term privacy framework for legislators, businesses, and citizens, uses the word context an astounding 85 times!

Given the intellectual influence she's had, it's important to understand how what she's saying is different from other privacy theorists. The standard explanation for privacy freakouts is that people get upset because they've "lost control" of data about themselves or there is simply too much data available. Nissenbaum argues that the real problem "is the inapproproriateness of the flow of information due to the mediation of technology." In her scheme, there are senders and receivers of messages, who communicate different types of information with very specific expectations of how it will be used. Privacy violations occur not when too much data accumulates or people can't direct it, but when one of the receivers or transmission principles change. The key academic term is "context-relative informational norms." Bust a norm and people get upset.

Read the full story at The Atlantic.

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