A Privacy Manifesto in Code: What If Your Emails Never Went to Gmail and Twitter Couldn't See Your Tweets?


A new tool under development by Oregon State computer scientists could radically alter the way that communications work on the web. Privly is a sort of manifesto-in-code, a working argument for a more private, less permanent Internet.

The system we have now gives all the power to the service providers. That seemed to be necessary, but Privly shows that it is not: Users could have a lot more power without giving up social networking. Just pointing that out is a valuable contribution to the ongoing struggle to understand and come up with better ways of sharing and protecting ourselves online.

"Companies like Twitter, Google, and Facebook make you choose between modern technology and privacy. But the Privly developers know this to be false choice," lead dev Sean McGregor says in the video below. "You can communicate through the site of your choosing without giving the host access to your content."

Through browser extensions, Privly allows you to post to social networks and send email without letting those services see "into" your text. Instead, your actual words get encrypted and then routed to Privlys servers (or an eventual peer-to-peer network). What the social media site "sees" is merely a link that Privly expands in your browser into the full content. Of course, this requires that people who want to see your content also need Privly installed on their machines.

Right now, Privly is a proof of concept running on a few computers at Oregon State. But McGregor and fellow coders Balaji Athreya and Jesse Hostetler have a $10,000 Kickstarter running to take it to the next level. (For example, in the current product, they don't yet encrypt your posts, but will add that into next-generation tool.)

What's intriguing about all this is that it, as McGregor puts it, violates many assumptions we have about the way the web works. When we post to a site, we are used to that site controlling whatever it is that we've sent to them. That seemed like the tradeoff you had to make in exchange for a service like Facebook. But McGregor and his team argue that it's simply not necessary to give away that level of control. And they are building the technology to prove it.

The fact that the content is user-controlled, however, has some fascinating repercussions. Email that sits in the cloud -- like Gmail -- could be edited by the sender even after its been received. Tweets could change on a tweeter's whim.  The semi-permanence and dependability of the social web could break down. Giving users power doesn't only affect the corporate services they use, but other users of those networks as well.

Still, Privly is a radical departure from the hat-in-hand begging that users have previously had to do to gain control over the information they share. If something like Privly were to catch on, it could have several important impacts. Especially once the peer-to-peer service were established, Privly could be a useful tool for activists who want to use social networking tools but don't want their opponents to be able to see their posts. That its to say, it could provide a new avenue for free speech on the Internet. As noted earlier, we assume cloud-based email and applications to be durable records of communication. That would not longer be the case. And of course, this model runs directly against the standard social network business model of running ads against the specific type of content you've posted.

On Privly's Kickstarter, several prospective backers have made comments questioning pieces of the proposal. Namely, do we want a social web that's so easily editable? That's a tough question, but McGregor wants us to think about something else: do we want a social web in which users actually own nothing?

For what it's worth, we aren't trying to change the internet, but we do want a new deal where participation doesn't require giving companies the right to sell your data. We wish this wasn't necessary, but we've seen too many examples of sites violating their users privacy, and of everyone from stalkers to employers to governments tracking and misusing information. You should have the right to protect your content. You should have the right to delete your content. We'll deliver the tools that allow you to do so, and hope the need doesn't grow further.

I think Privly is best viewed as an argument in code. It's an attempt to expand the philosophical and technical terrain on which the privacy debate is playing out. Privly is saying, "The deal between users and services just doesn't have to be the way that it is." I may not agree with the specific implementation of the tool, but its existence changes the ways we can think about privacy.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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