The Evolution of Privacy on the Net


Something that really struck me in the reading & our class discussion was the seemingly ever-present problem of privacy on the internet; even in the web’s literal origins, people had qualms about their privacy. As we discussed in class, it began with the “finger protocol.” Here’s an excerpt from Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hefner and Matthew Lyon that explains it well:

The FINGER controversy, a debate over privacy on the Net, occurred in early 1979 and involved some of the worst flaming in the MsgGroup’s experience. The fight was over the introduction, at Carnegie-Mellon, of an electronic widget that allowed users to peek into the on-line habits of other users on the Net. The FINGER command had been created in the early 1970s by a computer scientist named Les Earnest at Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Lab. “People generally worked long hours there, often with unpredictable schedules,” Earnest said. “When you wanted to meet with some group, it was important to know who was there and when the others would likely reappear. It also was important to be able to locate potential volleyball players when you wanted to play, Chinese-food freaks when you wanted to eat, and antisocial computer users when it appeared that something strange was happening on the system.” FINGER didn’t allow you to read someone else’s messages, but you could tell the date and time of the person’s last log-on and when last he or she had read mail. Some people had a problem with that.

We discussed in class that possible reasons people would have a problem with this could include wanting to be able to ignore messages when busy without people knowing, not wanting people do know if they missed work on certain days, and more. This issue can be followed all the way to the modern internet; in May of 2012, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, had a very sensitive instant messenger leak. His messages over AIM from 2004 were released, and, in one, he calls users of Facebook “dumb f–ks.” He calls them (us, I guess) this because they gave him their “emails, pictures, addresses” and more. Nowadays, we openly give our location to “Snap Maps” 24 hours a day, we give Facebook far more than those three parameters, we don’t blink when Google Maps gives us directions home before we even look at our phones when we get in the car, and more. An important but perhaps obvious question is: have we begun to care less about our privacy on the internet? And the truly pressing question is: why? 

I believe, of course, modern users of the internet are far more cavalier about privacy. However, the reasoning for that can be speculated about a lot; perhaps modern internet users simply know less of the dangers of sacrificing privacy than the internet pioneers did. Or, one could argue that the internet has simply become so integrated into our lives that it seems silly to try and be “separate” from it.

Greg Satell of Forbes Magazine released an article in 2014 entitled “Let’s Face It, We Don’t Really Care About Privacy.” In it, he argues that the “cost” of privacy has gone up. In order to have privacy, one would have to sacrifice their use of, say, their Facebook and LinkedIn. This would be sacrificing potential social and financial opportunities. This aligns well with the idea that the internet is just too important to hide from nowadays. What do you all think? Can we still preserve privacy in this day and age? Should we even try? Why aren’t we trying? Why did we seem ultimately unfazed by the idea that Google stores all voice commands online when discussed in class? Let me know your thoughts.

“Transparency” as a Requirement for IMPs


Welcome to my blog! Here’s the Jake Gilbert elevator pitch: I’m an 18-year-old Harvard student from Long Island, New York, and I’m interested in studying computer science, government, English, and a few more things (I’m particularly interested lately in comedy). Let’s dive in…

While reading “Where Wizards Stay Up Late” by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, a few things stood out to me. I found the initial requirements for the first IMP as it was contracted to be very fascinating. A particularly relevant request was that the network be “transparent.”  The book put it this way, on page 64 in Chapter 3:

“To achieve that transparency, the network was going to have to be fast, free of congestion, and extremely reliable. These were relatively straightforward requirements that Roberts had written into the request for proposals, but no one expected that actually accomplishing them would be easy”

This got me thinking; how has our definition of “transparency” on the internet changed throughout time? Do internet providers still hold an obligation to provide that transparency? When, if ever, did we lose transparency on the internet, and what did we gain through that sacrifice? Is the current fight for “net neutrality” analogous to the requirement for transparency in the young web?

Back during the origins of the internet, speed, lack of congestion, and reliability were enough to determine transparency. This is probably because that was all a transmitting host needed to be able to “look into the network through its adjacent IMP and see itself connected to the receiving host,” as the book put it. Those three factors gave a user enough knowledge to know exactly what was going on on their network; the average internet user today has very little personal knowledge regarding the inner-workings of their internet usage. Our in-class discussion about Artificial Intelligence raises some points regarding this; do Amazon, Google, Apple, etc have any obligation to their users to report exactly how and where the data collected from their voice input is used? Where do Alexa’s answers come from? Who’s hearing my voice as it’s used to build a better AI?

Transparency on the net is becoming a lost obligation as we know it. The fight for net neutrality is the greatest example of this. ISPs are currently lobbying the US government for the right to throttle internet connections for certain sites, charge more for certain services, and cap data usage at specific amounts (often on certain websites). This could create a dangerous dynamic where some have greater access to the knowledge on the internet, and some don’t. This could create a system by which ISPs can essentially hold users hostage by disallowing access to Netflix unless they pay an extra monthly fee. Does this comply with the internet’s original goal of “fast, free of congestion, and extremely reliable”? It seems the further we stray from this idea, the blurrier our idea of “transparency” for ISPs becomes.


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