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Blah blah privacy (data, big stories, and community shrugging)

Hopefully by now you’ve decided to give a shit or not about the giant Verizon/privacy story (and whether you have or not, I’d love to hear your thoughts on data in the comments). In case you’ve been under your favorite rock, here’s an article and a corresponding editorial from the NYT.

The excellent Brian Boyer suggests we remind #opengov geeks about journalism at this time, but I’d rather talk  (since it’s what everyone should IMHO be talking about with this news) data.

My favorite piece of reporting yet from this story was on the radio (likely NPR/affiliate); if you find the story, please link it in the comments; I’m listening in Louisville, Kentucky while visiting family.

The interviewee/commentator was being led to give their opinion on whether this will be a huge scandal … and their response? (paraphrased pending source): “I think a small minority will be very vocal, but the larger collective will shrug.”

I have my own opinions on why they’ll shrug (and without the Obama administration commenting on this story, chances are, it can fizzle out easily). I think the big problem for the public is that they, on the larger whole, have no fucking clue what we nerds mean when we say “data.”

For example, I personally hold onto my outrage when I first see “OMG SECURITY COLLECTING LOTS OF DATA ON US?” Because, pardon, of what data do you speak? Is it anonymized? Did I probably previously breeze through a Terms of Service and agree to let them to do whatever the hell they want with it? Does it matter?

I suspect the larger public just hears more noise about things they can’t parse.

I recently became a fan of an article from a few months ago that’s a fair criticism of hacking at data. The public on the whole could stand to understand data better, and privacy wouldn’t hurt either. By and large, collectors of data don’t care about you. They care about a question they can ask, a picture they can paint. At a recent event on political data science, I liked the quote “I love every one of you in this room, but I don’t really care about you as an individual.”

I think the key to caring about privacy policy is getting over some fear of being personally spied on — fear is a short-term motivator anyway. When a privacy group helps us step back and see a bigger picture about why we should care, they’ll get traction.

The radio commentator made a great point following their “shrug” comment — that what this “crisis” is a missed opportunity for is for privacy hawks. If you decide that you don’t care that much that Verizon is handing over data, maybe you should care if it has your name on it. If you don’t care about pressing the government to have, I don’t know, warrants or something in order to access theoretically private information, maybe you can care about your favorite giant telecom corporation at least anonymizing your data until the government shares such a warrant with them.

Edit: Lifehacker has a good summary of “what’s the deal, what you should do”

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