PII 2011: Privacy, Identity and Innovation conference (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Fri, 27 May 2011

PII 2011: Privacy, Identity and Innovation conference

I'm just now finding time to write up some of my notes from PII: Privacy, Identity and Innovation last week. PII was a fabulous conference, fascinating and well run. It was amazing to be in a room with so many people who actually care about these issues.

There were two days of speakers and panels, most of them in the same room, which surprised me: usually conferences have multiple tracks to give you lots of choices. But I ended up being glad for the single track. Almost all of the speakers and panels were interesting, including some I might not have chosen on my own. I had my laptop along with some projects I figured I'd work on during the boring sessions -- but that never happened. I didn't even get time during lunch or breaks -- too many fascinating people to talk to in the hallways.

Then Saturday was "Privacy Camp", a less formal "unconference" full of round-table discussions about some of the issues raised during the regular conference. Conversations were lively and informative.

Usually after a conference I have a couple of suggestions for improvement. For PII I really can't come up with anything. The website was very informative (they even had detailed parking information), everything ran pretty close to on time, rooms were easy to find, they had an A/V crew recording everything, and wow, that Thursday lunch. Plus: Best. Badgeholders. Ever. Great job, PII organizers!

And I couldn't help but notice the gender balance: a third of the speakers were women, and by my rough count-of-nearby-tables, women were close to 40% of the attendees. At a tech conference! That's about double most conferences. Most of the women I talked to were entrepreneurs, many with a history of successful startups already, plus some researchers and a few developers.

The opening talk was worth getting up early for: Julia Angwin, the journalist who wrote the Wall Street Journal's excellent "What they know" articles, discussing the research that led to to the series and what they've learned from it.

Later, once the panel discussions got started, the biggest takeaway from the conference was a question mentioned early on: "Were users surprised? When were they surprised?" Sometimes companies say they care about privacy, but haven't thought much about user expectations. Asking yourself this question is a great test of how well you're really protecting user privacy.

Privacy statements don't work

One of the panels I wouldn't have chosen that was unexpectedly interesting discussed web site privacy statements. First, M. Ryan Calo of the Stanford privacy center presented a study on user behavior with regard to privacy statements. They tried several different types, on websites of very different designs, to see what worked best for users. The upshot? "We couldn't test how well various privacy statements worked, because no users clicked on them. Zero."

Then Aleecia McDonald of Mozilla presented a study where they tried structuring privacy statements in different ways to make the information clearer to users. How can you improve on the "natural-language" policy you see on most websites, consisting of several pages of dense obfuscated text? They tried hierarchies where they showed the basics and let users click through to the details; interactive pages where you could expand and contract sections or mouse over a category to see more; colored tables, cute icons, the works. They found that most of the seemingly easier formats were actually worse than the long natural-language expositions no one reads.

If you make the page interactive, users won't expand the sections and won't find the important mouseovers. If you make sub-pages, users won't click through. If you use icons, users won't know what they mean. But too often, they'll end up thinking they understand, making assumptions about the details that don't match what's really in the policy. So most simplified, "user-friendly" policies are actually worse than a dense wall of text.

The only style that tested slightly better than natural-language policies was the "Nutrition label" style, where they presented several aspects of privacy with ratings for how good or bad the site was.

I felt sorry for the two panelists after Ryan and Aleecia, who were there to show off their cool hierarchical privacy statement page designs. They'd obviously put a lot of work into trying to make their policies clearer ... but we'd just been convincingly shown how ineffective such policies really are.

How to be stupid much faster

One panel discussed big data collection, and some of the ways data can be misused. Someone (Beth Givens?) related a story of a family arrested for marijuana growing after their power company's algorithms flagged them as suspicious for their heavy late-night use of power. Turns out they just had two teenagers who liked to stay up late playing video games. Terence Craig, in my favorite quote from the conference, quipped: "It used to be that it took weeks to accumulate that data. Now you can be stupid much faster."

I enjoyed a workshop given by Brian Kennish of Disconnect and Calvin Pappas of SelectOut about their projects. Disconnect arose from a chrome browser extension, Facebook Disconnect, to block Facebook tracking from widgets on third-party sites. SelectOut also arose from a chrome extension, making it easy for users to opt out of all the major advertising networks at once. The workshop turned into a lively discussion of opt-out versus do-not-track solutions, and what future directions might be.

In another workshop, Martin Ortlieb described a Google study comparing attitudes toward privacy of people in several countries. Someone in the audience asked a question about data being collected and held by government agencies versus private companies. Martin commented that attitudes in the study tended toward "I'd rather companies have my data, because then the government might regulate how it's used. If the government has it, no company's going to regulate it."

Assorted notes

Someone mentioned that Mozilla didn't seem to be taking "Do not track" very seriously, hiding it in the Advanced preferences tab, not under Privacy where you'd expect it. Why? Later we heard that Mozilla is listening to those concerns, and Firefox 5 will move Do Not Track to the Privacy tab.

Esther Dyson: "Personal data can be traded; reputation can't. Reputation is not a currency." She was responding to someone who described a business model involving trading reputation points.

M. Ryan Calo: The government doesn't need a warrant to access your webmail if it's older than 6 months, something most webmail users don't realize.

Finally, Raman Khanna observed: kids get tattoos, then when they're older they pay a lot more for laser removal services. There will be data services like that. "You were stupid when you were in college, and you put all this info online. We'll clean it up for you."

A good insight, and it reminded me of the old threat they used to give us in school (do they still say this to kids?) "This is going on your permanent record." Nobody was ever sure what this permanent record was or why anyone would want to look at it. I wonder if mine still exists somewhere?

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[ 11:32 May 27, 2011    More conferences | permalink to this entry | ]

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