In the mid 1980s, when Mark Zuckerberg was still in diapers, computers ran on floppy disks, and a web was something a spider built, a computer-science graduate student at Yale University started to worry about a problem that would have struck most people as far-fetched.
Larry Hunter began to realize that as computers became bigger parts of our lives, they would come to know more and more about us, whether we liked it or not. They would gather data and build profiles, and this technology would someday have meaningful implications for our privacy and freedom of choice.
In January 1985 he published a warning essay in the inaugural issue of a techno-revolutionary journal called The Whole Earth Review. “The ubiquity and power of the computer blur the distinction between public and private information,” he wrote. “Our revolution will not be in gathering data—don’t look for TV cameras in your bedroom—but in analyzing information that is already willingly shared.”
In just the past few years, Hunter’s concerns—recently unearthed and reposted on the Smithsonian Magazine’s Paleofuture blog—have come to look almost spookily prescient. His solution, however—new laws to give people property rights over their information—has never come to pass. Today, every time we click a link, shop on Amazon, or retweet a news story, we offer the vast digital world one more free clue about who we are and what we like. All this information is stored and analyzed, bought and sold—last week, it emerged that the FBI and National Security Agency have been collecting this data directly from some of the largest Internet companies. The scope of our private lives is shrinking, and we still don’t really know the implications of this shift.
Hunter is now a professor of computational biology at the University of Colorado Denver, where he creates software that pulls together distant strands of biomedical research. Though he has also kept a finger in the privacy debate, his personal positions on privacy aren’t necessarily what you might think: He encrypts e-mails to friends and extols the privacy benefits of all-cash transactions, but he’s also posted his genetic data online.
Ideas reached out to him for his perspective on how the last 30 years have unfolded, and to ask what he sees as the next big privacy concerns. This transcript was edited from interviews by phone and e-mail.
IDEAS: How do you feel about turning out to be so correct?
HUNTER: Well, validation is nice. I wish that some of the suggestions I made in that article had been taken to heart.
IDEAS: Today you have kids of your own, and social media is a huge part of their lives. What do you tell them?
HUNTER: Well, so I try to give them the perspective that it feels just like they’re communicating with their friends, and that it’s ephemeral, but a really much larger group of people is going to see it and it’s going to last for a really long time....The other thing I tell them is pretty much the same lesson I try to teach them about advertising, which is that it may be kind of entertaining and helpful when people are trying to push things on you, but be aware that they’re not for your interest, they’re for their interest.
IDEAS: Why is it so bad if companies like Facebook know about us? Lots of young people see infotracking as a tool that helps them find products they want to buy.
HUNTER: Advertising is coercive. It creates desires that wouldn’t have existed without it, and causes people to behave in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise....Advertising isn’t just about picking a kind of soap; political candidates advertise, and large corporations try to manipulate public opinion by advertising, too.
IDEAS: In your article, you talk about FBI databases and about state interests in this data. Is that still something that concerns you?
HUNTER: Oh my god, the national security state has totally jumped over all that stuff. I think the consequences of government monitoring of people’s behavior are far beyond what I envisioned in that article, and they use a lot more than commercial databases.
IDEAS: What happened to your suggestion that the law should give people a “property interest” in their own information?
HUNTER: I wrote a couple of articles with a sociologist named James Rule that looked in more detail at what that legislation would look like. At one point he got a legislator in Michigan interested in doing something about it and we talked some, but I don’t think a bill was ever actually introduced.... Now that the people who gain such tremendous commercial benefit from using this stuff, the Googles and Facebooks of the world, [have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo], the idea of trying...to enact such a thing in the face of opposition from such powerful forces seems very unlikely.Continued...