06 November 2015

Big Data and privacy self management

'Big Data and The Phantom Public: Walter Lippmann and the fallacy of data privacy self-management' by Jonathan A Obar in (2015) Big Data and Society argues
In 1927, Walter Lippmann published The Phantom Public, denouncing the ‘mystical fallacy of democracy.’ Decrying romantic democratic models that privilege self-governance, he writes: “I have not happened to meet anybody, from a President of the United States to a professor of political science, who came anywhere near to embodying the accepted ideal of the sovereign and omnicompetent citizen.” Almost 90 years later, Lippmann’s pragmatism is as relevant as ever, and should be applied in new contexts where similar self-governance concerns persist. This paper does just that, repurposing Lippmann’s argument in the context of the ongoing debate over the role of the digital citizen in Big Data management. It is argued that proposals by the Federal Trade Commission, the White House and the US Congress, championing failed notice and choice privacy policy, perpetuate a self-governance fallacy comparable to Lippmann’s, referred to here as the fallacy of data privacy self-management. Even if the digital citizen had the faculties and the system for data privacy self-management, the digital citizen has little time for data governance. We desire the freedom to pursue the ends of digital production, without being inhibited by the means. We want privacy, and safety, but cannot complete all that is required for its protection. If it is true that the fallacy of democracy is similar to the fallacy of data privacy self-management, then perhaps the pragmatic solution is representative data management: a combination of non/for-profit digital dossier management via infomediaries that can ensure the protection of personal data, while freeing individuals from what Lippmann referred to as an ‘unattainable ideal.’
Obar comments
 "The digital citizen today maintains a perpetual information illiteracy—an intellectual detachment from the rapidly expanding universe of Big Data. The digital citizen knows they are somehow affected by what is going on. Internet evolution continually, terms of service statements regularly, and data privacy mentions occasionally, serve as reminders that they are being swept along by great drifts of circumstance.""Yet the Internet’s data-driven affairs are in no convincing way the affairs of the digital citizen. Big Data’s operations are for the most part invisible, managed at distant centers, from behind the scenes, by unnamed powers. As a private person, the digital citizen does not know for certain what is going on, or who is doing it, or where they are being carried. No newspaper reports their environment so that they can grasp it; no school has taught them how to imagine it; their ideals, often, do not fit with it. Digital citizens live in a world which they cannot see, do not understand and are unable to direct. In the cold light of experience the digital citizen knows that data privacy self-management is a fiction."Had The Phantom Public been written today, and Walter Lippmann been concerned with the nature of our digital existence, perhaps this is how his opening chapter would have read. In 1927, critiquing what he refers to as “the mystical fallacy of democracy” (p. 28), Lippmann decries academic and popular misconceptions suggesting that individuals can be self-governing in a democracy. With language now infamous for its fiery and at times offensive tone, Lippmann challenges perpetuations of democratic delusion; spoken sedatives that, to this day, are strategically prescribed by politicians aiming to assuage publics that might otherwise fear political marginalization. Almost 90 years later, his words and his pragmatism are as relevant as ever, and should be applied in new contexts where similarly romantic and impractical calls for self-governance quiet those easily sedated, concurrently wasting time, money and energy in the pursuit of what Walter Lippmann called an “unattainable ideal” (p. 29).
This paper does just that, repurposing Lippmann’s argument in an attempt to contribute to the self-governance debate taking place over the role of the digital citizen1 in their own Big Data management. It is argued here that recent calls for data privacy self-management, or the ability for a single individual to control how their personal data is collected, used and disclosed (Solove, 2012), reveals a self-governance fallacy comparable to the fallacy described by Lippmann. What I term the fallacy of data privacy self-management, or the misconception that digital citizens can be self-governing in a digital universe defined by Big Data, is perpetuated by governments the world over, refusing to move beyond flawed notice and choice policy. While digital citizens suffer reputation management woes (Citron, 2009), self-disclosure misappropriation (Noamgalai.com, 2015), revenge porn (Citron and Franks, 2014), identity theft (Solove, 2002), eligibility threats from algorithms and data brokers (Pasquale, 2015), and a “swarming confusion of (other) problems” (Lippmann, 1927: 14) linked to the exponential growth of Big Data, governments champion futile ‘notice’ efforts in the name of privacy, engendering ‘the biggest lie on the internet,’2 and data management practices (‘choice’ and ‘access’), that limit individual data control more often than not (e.g. Parsons, 2014). In an attempt to contribute to the scholarship already highlighting the flaws in notice and choice privacy policy (e.g. Ben-Shahar and Schneider, 2011; McDonald and Cranor, 2008; Nissenbaum, 2009; Solove, 2012), this paper applies Lippmann’s self-governance concerns to further demonstrate the futility of the current approach. In doing so, the intention is to strengthen the community of critique by connecting the current Big Data self-governance debate to the rich and longstanding literature addressing the role of the individual in societal governance; a debate that can be traced back at least to the ancient Greeks. By making these connections, hopefully ongoing and future privacy efforts will learn and draw from the long history of self-governance concern, and do more to champion pragmatic approaches to Big Data management that are beneficial to digital citizens.
This paper begins with a review of Lippmann’s ‘fallacy of democracy,’ allowing for further conceptualization of the ‘fallacy of data privacy self-management.’ What follows is a policy analysis of recent privacy efforts by the US government that perpetuate the data privacy self-management fallacy. The analysis begins with a look at data proliferation, linked to a sweeping digitization of everyday life, and a Big Data industry that is growing as quickly as its stockpiles. The myriad data sources and data collectors will be emphasized in an attempt to highlight the complexity and impossibility of data privacy self-management. Calls for data self-governance by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the White House, and the US Congress are presented next, with brief references to Lippmann’s critique interspersed. Recent research supporting the view that data privacy self-management is a fallacy will be described. The discussion section summarizes the critique and briefly introduces a more pragmatic approach to the challenges identified, and one in need of further inquiry—representative data management.