Thinking About Obscurity
This essay is worth reading:
Obscurity is the idea that when information is hard to obtain or understand, it is, to some degree, safe. Safety, here, doesn’t mean inaccessible. Competent and determined data hunters armed with the right tools can always find a way to get it. Less committed folks, however, experience great effort as a deterrent.
Online, obscurity is created through a combination of factors. Being invisible to search engines increases obscurity. So does using privacy settings and pseudonyms. Disclosing information in coded ways that only a limited audience will grasp enhances obscurity, too. Since few online disclosures are truly confidential or highly publicized, the lion’s share of communication on the social web falls along the expansive continuum of obscurity: a range that runs from completely hidden to totally obvious.
Many contemporary privacy disputes are probably better classified as concern over losing obscurity. Consider the recent debate over whether a newspaper violated the privacy rights of gun owners by publishing a map comprised of information gleaned from public records. The situation left many scratching their heads. After all, how can public records be considered private? What obscurity draws our attention to, is that while the records were accessible to any member of the public prior to the rise of big data, more effort was required to obtain, aggregate, and publish them. In that prior context, technological constraints implicitly protected privacy interests. Now, in an attempt to keep pace with diminishing structural barriers, New York is considering excepting gun owners from “public records laws that normally allow newspapers or private citizens access to certain information the government collects.”
The essay is about Facebook’s new Graph search tool, and how its harm is best thought of as reducing obscurity.