Well, it’s been a long time in coming, folks, but here’s the latest installment of my “monthly” feature column for the IGDA.
I had a weird experience with this column. Beyond weird. One might even call it… surreal. And it’s still going on; still hasn’t been fully resolved. May not be. Despite a strong desire to explain I think it might be best to leave it at that; suffice to say that what you read below is not the original version of this column, and while I’m perfectly satisfied with what’s there, the whole “road not taken” dilemma does resonate. Anyway, it’s a story that’s probably only interesting to me, so consider yourselves lucky to not be regaled with it. Enjoy the piece!
The Open World
By Matthew Sakey
June 5, 2011
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
Well, it looks like the Great PSN Breach of 2011 is winding down. Everyone’s talking about the intrusion as a single event, but we should also assess it in the larger, societal perspective of information as a concept: what “our data” meant yesterday, what it means today, what it might mean tomorrow. Personal details under Sony’s stewardship were exposed, creating risk. Beyond the immediate fallout of cancelled credit cards and changed passwords, what does an exposure like that mean, to us individually and as a connected society? Maybe – and bear with me here – maybe the day is coming when it means nothing at all.
The past year has been eye-opening when it comes to the vulnerability of information. Just before PSN, Amazon Cloud Services suffered a monstrous failure that FUBARed hundreds of small businesses and confused the whole Internet for the better part of two days. In early April, ne’er-do-wells made off with approximately one bazillion names, email addresses, and god knows what else from email marketer Epsilon. Just the other day someone liberated email archives and resumes from Eidos. All in all, exposure of data we want kept private happens pretty regularly.
Wikileaks garnered the most worldwide attention, carpet-bombing the internet with U.S. diplomatic cables. Most were just embarrassing, like us calling other world leaders fat and stuff; but others were really truly top secret, and revealing them put lives at risk.
For our purposes, the important thing about the Wikileaks story isn’t that it happened, rather, that it happened because of the world we live in now, a world where information is hard to protect, easy to disseminate, and never, ever forgotten. Wikileaks took advantage of that, and so did the PSN hackers.
In 1999, Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems pleased no one when he said: “You have zero privacy… get over it.”
What if we did? What if, societally, we just… got over it? Could we?
Christine Love’s fantastic don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story imagines a future in which a teen generation doesn’t even know what anonymity is, let alone cares about having it, which bewilders thirtysomething protagonist John Rook. The other characters are bewildered by his bewilderment. “You keep saying ‘Privacy,’” one says, “what a weird, antiquated concept to keep bringing up.” Violation of privacy means nothing to the students because there’s nothing to violate. don’t take it personally imagines a McNealyist society in transition – one generation is still freaked about the concept of privacy, the next has gotten over it.
In the real world no one is ever going to do that, at least not without a cultural shift of such immensity I can’t even begin to fathom the circumstances under which it could occur. Plus a totally transparent world is a better idea in theory than reality. The tangible benefits – that events like Wikileaks and the PSN hack wouldn’t happen because there’s no private data to steal – would be quickly outweighed by the fact that certain stuff needs to be private. Forget credit card numbers, there are very real physical dangers associated with the entire world knowing where you live.
If McNealy is right, though, that information is already exposed; we just refuse to get over it. With only your name, a motivated villain can find everything else there is to know about you. We depend on villains not being motivated, and on crowd-based anonymity: the chance of you being singled out among six billion are quite slim. Even so, with this kind of vulnerability, it seems like we’d all be a lot more zealous about what we reveal.
Instead it’s the opposite. You’ve got to admit that over the years people have taken an increasingly cavalier attitude to what sorts of information they’re willing to divulge. Most of it is pretty innocuous, with our Twitters and Facebooks and stuff, but we are unquestionably sharing more than we did in the past.
Some people are sharing a lot more. Browse Facebook and it’s just a matter of time before you find a dude whose profile picture shows him wearing a porcupine-quill loincloth and slurping tequila from the unshaven armpit of a 72-year old Lebanese stripper. Whereas once we’d keep our porcupine stripper photos hidden in the garage, many people now feel comfortable sharing them. While this does at times lead to consequences, those who do the sharing either don’t think about that or don’t care.
I can’t say if those people are a minority or a majority, but we’re all sharing more than we used to, even the most cloistered among us. To say I’m a “private person” is a galactic understatement. I don’t open my door when people knock. I wouldn’t have a door if they made houses without them. I don’t answer the phone. I don’t use Facebook or Twitter, partly because I’m not an interesting person but mostly because I don’t want to share that level of granularity with the world.
And yet I’m almost completely over the knowledge that friends and strangers alike know what I’m doing on Steam. I pretend I’m not home when the phone rings even though the caller can see perfectly well that I’m Xboxing Netflix. It used to bother me, but it doesn’t any more, demonstrated by the fact that I could turn a lot of those notifications off but don’t. I have evolved to not care that people know this stuff about me, when ten years ago I’d have gone out of my way to conceal it. What does it matter that somebody knows what I’m playing? Or that I’m not answering the phone? Leave a message.
The issue becomes not “what is private,” but what we choose to reveal versus what we choose to believe is hidden. The theft at PSN, the revelations of Wikileaks, the Epsilon and Eidos hacks – these are violations of our belief systems as much as they are violations of our property.
David Colman of The New York Times suggested that the “Anonymous” part of Alcoholics Anonymous is obsolete. For celebrities, maybe, but I’m not sure anyone else is ready for that, for all the same reasons we don’t publish our addresses or credit card numbers. McNealy may be right about privacy being nonexistent, and we are learning to accommodate that reality, but we’ll never “get over it.”
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This content appears under the author’s copyright at the International Game Developers Association (IGDA).Views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the IGDA or its members.
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“a dude whose profile picture shows him wearing a porcupine-quill loincloth and slurping tequila from the unshaven armpit of a 72-year old Lebanese stripper.”
Pic or it didn’t happen. Also, why Lebanese?
It was the first nationality that popped into my head. I can change it to Mongolian if you like. Nepalese. Kyrgyz.
Always best to use the name of a fictional country/nationality. There’s always Freedonia and Sylvania from the Marx Brother’s movies. Then here in Memphis we have our local eccentric Prince Mongo who swears that he is an alien from the planet Zambodia.
Just don’t use Tangentistan. You might upset the residents.
Thanks for the article. I don’t “Face” or “Tweet”, and try to keep as much to myself as I can, but it is a never-ending battle. From tracking cookies to hacking. I try to be as careful as I can, and then try not to worry about what could happen. I don’t think I am young enough to “get over it” because I grew to adulthood in a time when it wasn’t too hard to be anonymous. And I kinda like whatever vestiges of that anonymity I can hold on to. And I believe in unicorns, too!
“I wouldn’t have a door if they made houses without them.”
This is why I enjoy reading your articles. Ahh the times are always changing. It’s amusing to regularly make use of payphones in L.A. Noire. How did cops manage in the ’40s?!? ;/
Remember PGP anyone? Pretty Good Privacy? It was considered a must have for email. Haven’t heard about it in a while now.
I haven’t heard of PGP…
I think people want to share – they want something significant to happen in their lives, and the ease with which people can communicate with anyone on the planet now, people think that they’re closer than ever to finding whatever that spark is they’re trying to capture.
Most people think that spark is fame or wealth (or both, but then people often think of the two as one), so we see a plethora of pics, videos, whatever, as people hope to get noticed – and not just noticed, but noticed by people who can make things happen. Sadly, we are very much becoming a culture of exhibitionists.
I believe that in all of us there is a yearning for something. Those of us where were lucky enough to be born before the rise of computers and the internet strongly doubt that we’ll find that thing that fills the hole of our longing by sharing.
Anyway, before I go on ad nauseum about what can fulfill us, I think privacy is a casualty of that incessant search for fame and wealth. I’m sure even those who post distasteful pics still want to keep some secrets. There will always be something that someone doesn’t want the rest of the world to know, even if it is an innocent little something.
Early history of PGP
“Phil Zimmermann created the first version of PGP encryption in 1991. The name, “Pretty Good Privacy”, is humorously ironic and was inspired by the name of a grocery store, “Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery”, featured in radio host Garrison Keillor’s fictional town, Lake Wobegon. This first version included a symmetric-key algorithm that Zimmermann had designed himself, named BassOmatic after a Saturday Night Live sketch. Zimmermann had been a long-time anti-nuclear activist, and created PGP encryption so that similarly inclined people might securely use BBSs and securely store messages and files. No license was required for its non-commercial use. There was not even a nominal charge, and the complete source code was included with all copies.”
“characterized an early version as being ‘the closest you’re likely to get to military-grade encryption.'”
Wow, sounds pretty serious. Is this in wide use?
On this note, do any of you make use of Facebook privacy settings, should you have an account there?
Or a better question; do any of you not?
I’m the only person I know of who allows total strangers to view my wall and photo galleries.
I just can’t imagine being ashamed of any of it, or why I would care about others reading it. I’ve nothing to lose except a few minutes to a brief, easily-blocked stalking by some crazed Smurkish armpit-drinker, and everything to gain in terms of newcomers, potentially valuable friends or collaborators having unfettered access to my artwork, plans and ideas.