Privacy has been at the center of many conversation here at SXSW Interactive, driving myriad discussions on the long shadow of big data's promise and conflicts (how to bring useful products to consumers utilizing the massive amount of data they're generating while at the same time leaving them alone), the diminished "moral" standing of American tech giants like Facebook, Yahoo and Google in the wake of Edward Snowden's releases and, most basically, how to better protect citizens' right to control how they are monitored in the digital space.
It's an issue that's become an increasing concern for both the music industry and music consumers of most every stripe who increasingly enjoy their audio before the warm glow of an LED screen. In 2011 Apple faced scrutiny from lawmakers about its iPhone and iPad location-detecting software, which will likely soon find a new home in many users' automobiles thanks to recent advances in the company's CarPlay dashboard system. Already many weary consumers (remember, download sales have maintained a steady descent) are now wary, thinking about when and how they're being (constantly) watched.
Spotify's purchase of the Echo Nest, for example, allows the streaming service unprecedented access to the music intelligence platform's vast amounts of data; and it was recently revealed that Pandora can tell what political party you belong to using the data they collect from users. Even Warner Music Group's partnership with song-tagging mobile app Shazam gives the record label access to Shazam users' listening habits and location, data that another company will likely find reason to mine in the not-too-distant future.
The question of the National Security Agency's overreach was raised immediately in a discussion early Saturday -- not to mention Friday morning's talk with Google executives -- when Brad Burnham, a partner in the powerful tech investment firm Union Square Ventures, an early backer of Twitter and Soundcloud, spoke to the confused goals of the NSA's global surveillance.
"We've given up that moral authority by doing the things that we're doing," said Burnham. "[NSA director] Keith Alexander was arguing strongly against transparency. He used an example that for the longest time the NSA was monitoring Osama bin Laden's satellite phone... until a newspaper reporter outed them. He was describing this as a horrific occurrence -- bin Laden went into his bunker and never came out. As a result he became quite ineffective. So the question is, what's the objective? To reduce the threat, or to continue to be able to listen in, voyeuristically, to all of the things that are going on around the world?" (More to the point, what is a new application like Dumbstruck trying to achieve with its plans to sell facial recognition data to advertisers?)
"The thing that the NSA has done, unintentionally, is fundamentally subvert the trust that users had in these global services [like Google], most of which were created in the U.S.," Burnham added.
"I hear the point about the power of big data and what it allows us to learn. I'm not opposed to that; I see how that's powerful. [But] I think that it has to be more [of an] opt-in basis. Things should be private by default," said Nicholas Merril, executive director and founder of the Calyx Institute, and the first person to stand up against a national security request for information, back in 2004 -- a case that is still ongoing.
With regard to the issue of the data collection possibilities cars offer, at a discussion on the future of automobiles, several audience members expressed concern over the utilization of that data, as well as who owns it. Sefi Grossman, VP and tech director for Team Detroit, an agency which has often worked for the Ford Motor Co, summed up the ambivalence of companies looking at the possibility of losing some of their data-driven insights in the face of the ongoing privacy debate (not to mention notably referring to cars as devices). "I don't know if there's a specific answer. I agree it starts with the user. It's the same question across a lot of devices."
Wikileaks co-founder and living lightning rod Julian Assange made an appearance via video conference from the Ecuadorian embassy in London Saturday during SXSWi, speaking at length to a capacity crowd about the Snowden leaks, the NSA, as well as the current state of the journalists reporting on these leaks.
“National security reporters are the new political refugees,” he proclaimed, referring to leading NSA journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, who broke the Snowden stories, and Sarah Harrison of Wikileaks, all of whom no longer reside in the U.S. This was largely positive, he said, saying that these journalists are working to form a “nucleus of resistance” against aggressive governments seeking to prosecute them.
Several of these journalists now work at the newly formed Firstlook Media, which Assange spoke at length about on the topic of money and power, saying that founder “[Pierre] Omidyar [eBay founder] is a symptom of a new elite in the United States that feels it is genuinely threatened by what is going on with the National Security Agency, and that is important.”
A great deal of Assange's monologue -- technical difficulties presented a nervous moderator with serious communication problems and prevented a more natural conversation -- was dedicated to characterizing the NSA as “a rogue agency… whose power and storage capabilities double every 18 months.” Speaking at length and in his signature oratorical style, he characterized the “deep state” as a “post-modern amalgamation of private and public agencies.”
It's quite obvious, from the scattershot tone and rhetorical theorizing that typified many of the discussions at SXSWi and in the media, that the privacy debate is an evolving discussion slowly arcing towards mass consensus, one that will ultimately be defined with policy both private and public in the coming years.
Meanwhile, keep in mind that as you're listening to music, others may be listening to you.