If There's Privacy In The Digital Age, It Has A New Definition : All Tech Considered Even staunch privacy advocates are concluding that it's impossible to protect personal data completely. The best hope for online privacy, they say, lies in legal safeguards that prevent abuse.

If There's Privacy In The Digital Age, It Has A New Definition

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. It's Monday, so let's get to All Tech Considered.


BLOCK: In January, President Obama ordered a sweeping review of digital surveillance and its impact on civil liberties. He said, challenges to our privacy come not just from government data gathering, but also from companies that track what we buy and where we go. And today, MIT hosted a privacy workshop with administration officials.

As NPR's Steve Henn reports, the collection of personal information is ubiquitous, even staunch privacy advocates say it's impossible to build a protective wall around all your personal data. And, he says, that's forcing many to rethink what privacy means in the digital age.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Collecting huge amounts of information about all of us and then using super computers to sift through it - analyze it and study it - can be a tremendously powerful thing. Researchers use techniques like this to identify genetic markers linked to breast cancer, to better understand climate change and figure out...

DANNY WEITZNER: How to combat hospital infections.

HENN: Danny Weitzner used to advice the White House on technology and privacy. He helped write the administration's proposed Privacy Bill of Rights. Now, he's at MIT and he organized today's event. And while Weitzner sees lots of promise in these techniques, he's not blind to how big business and the government could abuse them.

WEITZNER: Some marketers have discovered that a very good proxy for a high credit score is found in people who by furniture coasters.

HENN: Yes, he did say furniture coasters...

WEITZNER: ...to protect their wood floors from being scraped by the feet of their wood furniture.

HENN: You know those little felt pads you put underneath a chair? Well, it turns out if you use them, you're probably a better credit risk. And credit scores are used for all sorts of things, like making employment decisions or getting an apartment. And there are rules for how credit scores are used. If someone checks your credit, generally, they have to get your permission to do it. But that's not the case if they use a proxy for your credit score, like furniture coaster purchases.

JULIA ANGWIN: No one is ever going to tell you when they turn you down for a job, that it was because they pulled up your data broker report, and it said blah-blah-blah. You know?

HENN: Julia Angwin is author of the new book "Dragnet Nation."

ANGWIN: Right now, the problem is, you can't tell when your data is being used against you, right? So there's this kind of feeling of fear.

HENN: Angwin covered privacy and technology at the Wall Street Journal for years. In her book, she chronicles her attempt to erase her own digital trail, to prevent it from ever being used against her. She spent thousands of dollars on gadgets and software to help keep her identity secret online. She spent hundreds of hours tracking down stashes of data about herself, and then begging companies to erase it.

In the end, she failed.

ANGWIN: Well, I mean after spending a year doing this, I felt this is not something any normal person would do or should do.

WEITZNER: There's a tendency to think that privacy is synonymous with secrecy.

HENN: Danny Weitzner.

WEITZNER: That if you can keep your personal information secret, then you have privacy. But if you don't - if it's not secret anymore, if third parties hold your personal information - then somehow you have lost all your privacy. I personally reject that notion of privacy.

HENN: Weitzner says we can never turn back the clock. None of us will ever be able to completely disappear. But he insists privacy isn't dead. He says protecting privacy in the digital age means creating rules which required governments and businesses to be transparent about how they use our information. Weitzner envisions a world where big databases, including ones that the NSA are audited, like financial reports to prevent abuse, where encryption technologies assure that research involving troves of personal information don't open windows into individuals' personal lives.

Surprisingly, Chris Calabrese at the ACLU agrees.

CHRIS CALABRESE: This can't be a discussion about how one side wants to, you know, stop global warming by doing a better analysis of, you know, huge information on our energy use, and the other side cares about privacy. That can't be the way the debate is framed.

HENN: Calabrese can't kill off this big data business, it's too late. And he says we probably don't want to anyway. But he believes with the right rules and technologies, maybe we can get it under control.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.

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