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Survey: No Consensus How to Curb Eroding Online Privacy

FILE - Shadows of members of a panel appear on a wall before a meeting about the "right to be forgotten" in Madrid, Sept. 9, 2014.
FILE - Shadows of members of a panel appear on a wall before a meeting about the "right to be forgotten" in Madrid, Sept. 9, 2014.

A new survey says that as online privacy continues to erode, governments, technology workers and individuals will struggle to respond.

The report titled "The Future of Privacy," sponsored by the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, was released Thursday and explores the future of digital privacy over the next decade.

It surveyed many privacy advocates, digital entrepreneurs, journalists and Internet pioneers.

Participants were asked to share their thoughts to a question put forward by researchers: Would governments be able to develop digital privacy policies that protected individuals but also allowed for business innovation by 2025?

Fifty-five percent of those responding said no while 45 percent said such a privacy infrastructure was likely to be developed. The study comes as the United Nations General Assembly is considering a measure calling on nations to respect a "right to privacy in the digital age."

Report authors noted several recurring themes among those participating in the study.

For those who were pessimistic about the future of online privacy, many concluded that, with so many different cultural perspectives and government policies on privacy, there was no way to create one global Internet policy.

Of the 45 percent who were more optimistic, most respondents said new privacy and circumvention tools would give individuals more control over who sees their personal information.

That would allow users online to create multi-tiered privacy guards offering varying levels of protection.

There was one area of near-universal agreement among all 2,511 respondents: that living a public online life in 2025 will be a reality.

Traditional norms of what people consider private will evolve with technology, the authors said, adding that people will adapt to living more transparent lives while online.

Forecasting the future

"It’s just darn hard to keep a secret now," said Bud Levin, vice chair of the Futures Working Group and one of the study participants.

Still, predicting what may happen in the years to come is a tricky business, but not impossible, said the study’s lead author, Janna Anderson.

Anderson joined up with researchers at Pew in 2000 to begin examining the accuracy of last century’s predictions about the future of the web.

"It turns out a lot of researchers weren’t all that much off," she told VOA. And those findings lead to, among other things, this year’s study.

Finding global concensus

One major reason respondents were pessimistic about a global privacy concensus is the many varied national and cultural perspectives at play.

"A secure, accepted and trusted privacy-rights infrastructure on the Internet, at the global scale, is impossible for the foreseeable future," John Savage, a computer science professor at Brown University said in responding to the survey. "For too many large nations, a tension exists between state security and privacy rights."

Others concluded that, given the continuing expansion of data mining on the Web and the growth of what’s called the "Internet of things" – where essentially every object in your home or office will be connected online – privacy will become a luxury affordable only by the elite.

"The last 10 years have given us a discouraging surfeit of evidence that companies will preference their ability to extract, sell and trade data than establish simple, easy-to-use privacy protecting mechanisms,” wrote researcher Kate Crawford.

"I would expect to see the development of more encryption technologies and boutique services for people prepared to pay a premium for greater control over their data," she wrote.

Anderson said basic data tagging and tracking of individual’s private information is already happening.

"You can see this if you just look in your Facebook feed. You may shop for something on Amazon and suddenly on your Facebook feed you’re going to see ads popping up for 24-inch TVs or whatever you were looking for on Amazon."

Of those who were more optimistic about the future of online privacy, a majority concluded that individuals will have many more choices of digital tools to shield their identity, giving them the power to monitor who may be doing what with their personal information.

Jim Hendler, one of the first architects of the web, foresees major progress in these tools.

"People will be more aware of how their information is being used, who is allowed to collect it, and what redress they have when there are violations," he said. "However, the amount of personal information that will be available, and the potential for abuse, will also grow rapidly."

Redefining privacy

Anderson said there was one point on which nearly everyone agreed.

"Living a public life online is the new default," she said. "They enrich friendships, grow communities and actually earn money and personal wealth, and personal data is the raw materials of the knowledge economy."

Bud Levin goes one step further, calling privacy an artifact of a bygone time.

"Privacy, confidentiality, those sorts of things developed in the Industrial Age," he told VOA, "and are now getting tested in the Information, or Post-Information Age. It’s all giving way to ubiquitous transparency."

But Levin and other also acknowledge that leading a transparent life can present its own challenges and hazards.

"All this tagging, tracking and databasing can be very dangerous to people’s lives," Anderson said. "There’s concern in a lot of places in the world that that could be endangering people."

The report is merely predictive and doesn’t offer any specific policy proposals for governments or industry.

But Anderson said it’s clear from the thousands of responses that everyone should be thinking about how much privacy they want while online, and what they may need to do to ensure that.

"If they just think, 'Well, I’ve got nothing to hide, I’m going to give up information for the convenience of it,' they should try to remember that doesn’t happen everywhere in the world," she said.

"They should still try to stand up for some ways privacy rights can be built in. They should be concerned about civil rights online, because you never know when a challenge is going to come forth now," Anderson said.

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.