Blog: The Privacy Revolution

According to technology writer and Harvard alumnus fellow Doc Searls, the internet is a “teenager.” If we measure in human years, perhaps it is a young adult. But if we look at this metaphor not in terms of years but in terms of human behavioral development, I think he may be on to something revealing. The internet teenager is a mixture of internal conflict, chaos, and rebellion, but it is also of increasing utility. One thing is for sure: the internet teenager is making its mark on the world. Likely this mark is a permanent one, as it has intrinsically shaped our personal and professional lives. Even some of the oldest and seemingly immovable institutions on Earth have been touched by the internet. Yes, even the Pope is on Twitter.

What does this have to do with privacy? In a word, everything. The internet is inherently an un-private technology. The basic idea (in layperson’s terms) is “Let’s link up different computers and let Computer X talk with Computer Y by passing the conversation through Computers A, B, and C.” Keep in mind that Computers A, B, and C are perfectly capable of reading and saving the messages that they dutifully pass between Computer X and Computer Y.

This all sounds very democratic and nice in a certain sense, but when we dive into the details, it is anything but democratic. I would argue it has developed into quite the opposite: a plutocracy. As this may be an unfamiliar word for some readers, let’s turn to a prized project of the teenage internet for a definition:

Plutocracy (from Greek πλοῦτος, ploutos, meaning "wealth", and κράτος, kratos, meaning "power, dominion, rule") or plutarchy, is a form of oligarchy and defines a society ruled or controlled by the small minority of the wealthiest citizens. (Wikipedia)

How does the internet plutocracy look in detail? This is a complex topic, which I can’t describe fully in a single blog post. But let’s start close to home, literally. Consider an increasingly common scenario: You are at your home late one evening, sitting by the fireside and enjoying your favorite eBook, which you magically downloaded from “the cloud.” The book is now softly glowing on your favorite rectangular device. The doors to your house are locked, the blinds are drawn, and you feel at peace.

Your device talks with a WiFi router in your living room. You have no idea how it works, but somehow this little black box (also comes in white!) lets you, through your devices, talk with the outside world. Hopefully it also keeps unwanted gazers out of your home network. But does it really?

The home network, technically known as a local area network, is something you can control—to an extent. Most people, however, do not have the know-how nor perhaps the patience to fuss much with the mysterious plastic box that creates their local area network, enabling their emails, TV programs, social media, and endless other delicacies to roam freely into their homes.

In my case, the router that sits between my home network and the internet is a Linux device (thank you, Linus Torvalds!), manufactured by a Chinese company and branded by a Finnish network operator. Being a Linux device, the other night I tried to access it via telnet to see what’s going on inside. Alas, the root password is unknown to me. I tried to crack it, but so far, no luck.

I turned to another one of the internet’s teenage creations, the online forum, to see if any net citizens could help me out. Apparently, the router magicians and telecom operators of the world are unwilling to give out such top secret information that would let people peer inside this magic black box. They claim this secrecy keeps people safe from breaking the box (somewhat true, perhaps), voiding the warranty, and leaving them completely in the dark. So we must simply trust that the device is operating as advertised.

I start to feel like Jussi Koskela: given the rights to farm a parcel of land owned by the aristocracy.* But the land is a swamp. Only with great difficulty can it be cultivated. Luckily, I have a hoe and some sisu, so I get to work. I set up a Raspberry Pi as a secondary router that sits between the little black box and a subordinate home network, serving as a gatekeeper or sentry to watch and control what passes back and forth. Continuing the above analogy, the little black box controls the Pappila estate under the authority of the Vicar (Rovasti). The box regulates the local area network where I live, and I can only control the things that it allows me to control, according to the provider’s terms and conditions. My Raspberry Pi is my croft (torppa). I have more control, but I must labor to make it cultivable.

What does all this have to do with the National Land Survey? The NLS, along with many other government agencies, is following the trends of the world by increasing the level of its digital services. As a government agency, I would argue we have a moral obligation to help citizens understand how digitalization affects their privacy. At the Finnish Geospatial Research Institute, the research unit of the NLS, we have been investigating privacy issues related to geospatial technologies, namely through the MyGeoTrust project and recently also through the INSURE project. We are also actively involved in a privacy revolution that is beginning to pick up steam in Finland and more widely in Europe. For example, I recently attended the MyData Conference in Helsinki, where I gained a lot of knowledge about digital privacy and also met many like-minded people who are working in this area. It also inspired me to get serious about my own personal digital privacy.

One of the aspects of Finland that I most appreciate is that there is a strong shared sense of respect for privacy. I believe this is deeply ingrained in the Finnish culture, ever since Finns began retreating to the forest to evade foreign rule. Jussi Koskela, although fictional, somehow represents this Finnish ideal.

In modern times, our life is increasingly online and digital. Have we been able to maintain this Finnish ideal of privacy in digital terms? I would argue that we have largely ceded our digital privacy to external powers, namely American corporations, but increasingly to Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or Taiwanese ones. Try as we may, it is incredibly difficult to completely avoid relying on—and therefore putting our digital trust in—one or more such companies.**

I am an optimist. Optimists, however, should never become starry-eyed. We must recognize that Finnish industry has an increasingly weak position in this internet plutocracy, as does Europe as a whole. This should frighten us. But hopefully it does so in a Finnish way. Just as Finns stood up to foreign powers in the 20th Century, we can and should defend (peacefully) our digital privacy in the 21st. It is time for all Finns to stand together and join the Privacy Revolution.

Robert E. Guinness
Senior Research Scientist

* Jussi Koskela is one of the main characters in the classic novels by Väinö Linna, known as Under the North Star. The first novel in this trilogy tells the story of the historical struggles between the land-owning classes and the Finnish peasant farmers. Finnish readers will likely be familiar with this reference, but for others, please see the links provided for more details.

**This blog post was composed in LibreOffice, running under the Ubuntu operating system, but finalized in Microsoft Word for compatibility reasons. It was transmitted to the NLS Communications Department by email via the Mozilla Firefox browser, using Microsoft’s Outlook Web App, which is the only email system available to me for official use.