November 27, 2013, 5:00 PM — It was sometime in the late 1990s, maybe ‘97 or so, when I had my privacy epiphany.
I was an executive editor at PC World at the time, during the height of the dot com madness. It was in a meeting with some vendor (Pointcast? Alta Vista? I can’t remember) in the 6th floor conference room at 501 2nd Street, where a guy in a suit was talking about their new Web site and how it would allow them to collect and monetize user data.
The suit was just blathering on, but I stopped him short.
“Wait a minute,” I remember saying. “You’re talking about my data, right? My name, my address, my phone number? This is my data, not yours. What gives you the right to make money off of it? What’s in it for me?”
From that moment sprang a career-long obsession with personal privacy on the Internet – as well as a series of articles that were finalists for a National Magazine Award, a book for O’Reilly Media, and this blog, Thank You For Not Sharing, which launched in March 2010.
TY4NS started out by looking at the privacy implications of social media, but it blossomed into much more. Over the last three and a half years I’ve covered online advertising, data mining, big data, retail tracking, tools that purport to protect you from your own worst social networking habits (but usually don’t), a variety of new social networks attempting to offer an alternative to Facebook et al (rarely with any success), spammy infographics and the multibillion-dollar online education market that spawns them, Facebook and Twitter fakes, anonymity and identity, black-hat SEO tactics, the Internet of things, the NSA and pole dancing. That's just the short list.
All of this is a preface to my news: This my last post for TY4NS. No, I am not being held by the NSA in some third-world hellhole, nor am I retiring from this racket. I’m moving on to an “exciting new opportunity” that I’m not allowed to talk about in public yet, despite the fact that I’m dying to spill the beans.
So today seems a most appropriate day to give thanks to the folks who’ve helped me along the way.
First, my editors. Jodie, Amy, Josh and the rest of the gang at ITworld have been truly an honor to work with. They put up with my obsessions, off-topic tangents, and unpredictable deadline schedule better than anyone I’ve been professionally associated with, and I shall miss them.
My colleagues. There are a handful of journalists doing really great work on the privacy and security beat; I have tried to steal from them as often as possible. They include Forbes’ Kashmir Hill and Andy Greenberg; Brian Krebs of Krebs on Security; CNET’s Declan Mccullagh, and the entire Wall Street Journal “What They Know” team, especially Julia Angwin.
On the international reporting front, journalists like Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Bart Gellman, James Risen, Eric Lichtblau, and Alan Rusbridger have done amazing work unraveling the multi-headed hydra that is the NSA. I am thankful for all of them, as well as those I have inevitably forgotten.
My expert sources. My motto (well, one of my mottos) is I’m no expert, but I have several of them on speed dial. And I’m fortunate to be able to call on some of the smartest folks in their respective fields.
When it comes to cyber law, Bennet Kelly and Jonathon Ezor have been my go-to guys, always insisting on giving me a complex and nuanced answer to every question, even when I really crave a simple yes or no.
Security wonks Ashkan Soltani and Jonathan Mayer understand the plumbing of the InterWebs better than I ever could hope to, and yet they manage to explain it to me without causing my brain to explode.
When I want to understand how the online ad industry works, I usually go to Evidon’s Scott Meyer, who always politely answers my questions despite the snark I have heaped upon his company over the years.
I need to offer a special shout out to Shaun Dakin, who along with EPIC’s Amie Stepanovich, has been hosting a weekly Twitter chat on privacy I attend on a semi regular basis. He also maintains a Facebook privacy group where he continually posts important news that I’ve missed.
Finally there’s the luminous and compelling Sarah Downey of Abine, who puts up with my multi-adjectival descriptions of her with great patience and humor. I think half of my posts about Do Not Track issues were written just to have an excuse to talk to her.
PR folks. Yes, really. The journalists I know spend a large percentage of their free time complaining about public relations pros, while drinking beer and eating cheese cubes provided by those very same people.
Yes, it’s always better to have an inside source at a company who can give you the straight skinny without corporate arse-kissing and attempts at spin control, but those are few and far between. When I need an answer in a hurry, I go through the media contacts at Google, Facebook, Twitter, and many many smaller concerns. Sometimes they get back to me right away, sometimes not at all. But I appreciate them being there none the less.
Ed Snowden. Do I have to explain this one? I think not. The man has fundamentally changed everything to do with privacy and security. Suddenly, it’s something everyone cares about, even if we’re not exactly sure what to do about it.
My readers. Yeah, you. The Internet is a strange place; one day a post I’ve spent days researching is read by 12 people; the next one could be viewed by tens of thousands, many of whom have strong opinions and are not shy about sharing them. There’s no predicting. But I appreciate each and every one of you. Because without readers, what’s the point?
Update: I forgot the most important person of all: my lovely and talented wife, who just reminded me that back in her editor days she assigned me my first big feature on privacy, years before the "epiphany" outlined above. (And has also put up with me and my a) forgetfulness, and b) stupid sense of humor for the past 180 years.) Sorry honey. Guess it's dog food for dinner tonight.
Got a question about social media or privacy? Better ask somebody else, cuz I’m outta here. Still, you can follow me on Twitter to find out about my new adventures: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.