My tin-foil hat is now a fashion accessory

Five years ago, I challenged a radio audience to affirm that privacy is worth money. I asked, “Would you pay for, rather than use Gmail and other free online services, if your communications and your calendar were kept private as part of the package?”

Crickets.  Most of the audience didn’t have a clue about how “big data” uses the personal facts of their lives — and big brother was just a concept in a book from high school.

Most friends and associates dismissed me back then with an eye-roll every time the subject came up. My own sister forbade me to discuss privacy, data profiling, and surveillance with my nephews.

“I want my kids to be happy,” she said. “And who cares what you do anyway? Nobody cares where you are or what you’re doing.” Ouch. And not true, although I knew enough to shut up right then.

But now, my tin-foil hat is a fashion accessory, proudly worn. Vindication abounds, and I’m not just talking Snowden (although he certainly does deserve a tip of the tin-foil).

Ah, the irrefutable vindication of the marketplace.  This week, you can pre-order a product called Blackphone, that applies to  smartphones the best thinking from non-corporate privacy and security researchers. Blackphone is preconfigured for privacy.

It allows the users to choose their own level of tolerance for tracking and profiling, with an opt-in for the invasive apps from Google, Facebook, et al, that come pre-packaged in all currently popular smartphone products. Today’s most popular phones don’t even offer an opt-out for such bundled apps, because eliminating them requires wiping the operating system.

Private, encrypted phone calls and text messaging will be standard for Blackphone users, along with encrypted cloud-based storage once messages are no longer in transit.

The five-year-old question stands.  How much is your privacy worth to you?  Blackphone retails for $630. That includes the phone and two years of encrypted communications. The privacy apps can be shared with another user for free.

Meanwhile, Boeing says it will make the super-secure corporate version of the black phone.  This phone is armed with a tamper-detection feature that causes the data to self-distruct if anyone tries to open the case.  It’s primarily intended for government. But government has raised the bar on privacy and security for its contractors. Private businesses that work with government will no doubt investigate the product when it becomes available. No word on the price.

Even the big-data poster child for privacy invasion — Facebook — made a $19 billion concession to privacy when it purchased text messaging service WhatsApp.  Yes, Facebook wants to be in the mobile space.  But the WhatsApp purchase adds to Facebook’s portfolio a company that expressly does not write code that collects data for the purpose of profiling users, and does not store its users’ messages.

WhatsApp would be unable to provider user data to advertisers or law enforcement even if called upon to do so, because they don’t have it to offer.

The company makes money by charging its users a dollar per year, after a year of free service. (Next year, that could be 450 million users times one dollar.)  A dollar is not a huge price to pay, but it’s the going rate for a lot of things that were initially available for free on the internet, like songs and newspaper articles.  The prevailing attitude is changing.