David Holtzman is on a crusade to change the way
the digital world defines privacy.
Best known as the former chief technology officer of
Network Solutions, the 45-year-old former
cryptographic analyst with the U.S. Navy during the
Vietnam War oversaw the growth of the commercial
Internet from 500,000 domain names to more than 20 million.
He watched in amazement as technology made it easier
for marketers to collect and distribute vast amounts
of data--everything from the value of homes and stock
options to arrest records and death certificates.
Early last year, Holtzman became CEO of Opion, a
market research start-up that scoured newsgroups and
message boards to determine which anonymous
participants were the most influential trendsetters.
But $7 million in venture funding dried up by the fall,
and the company couldn't raise more money. The
Herndon, Va., resident took a hiatus from the daily
grind and is teaching an online marketing course at
American University, working on a book about privacy,
and trying to encourage legislators in the United
States and around the world to think creatively about
privacy vs. security.
Holtzman fears that, in an effort to protect their
reputations and guard their privacy, people who
participate in digital society will become polarized
into two camps: the "vanilla politicians" and the
security-obsessed "curmudgeons." Holtzman talked with
CNET News.com reporter Rachel Konrad about virtual
schizophrenia, online dating and other facets of the
Why is the privacy debate your pet issue?
I have a degree in philosophy and was an intelligence
analyst on submarines for a number of years. Then, I
got into computers 15 years ago and built a lot of
large-scale information systems. I went to (Network
Solutions) and started a company, and now I'm on a
bunch of boards and I'm writing. I'm in an interesting
position to see a lot of different things.
The conclusion I've come to is that privacy is being
treated like a regulatory issue in some parts of the
world, but really it's being driven by technology.
Technology makes new things available every day--not
just blue-sky stuff like nanotech...but Sony digital
recorders and Tivo. It's not clear to me what it means
if AOL says they won't share information with any
third party. Does that include the entire AOL Time
Warner family? That's a large portion of the media
world. Do I want my information from AOL shared by HBO
or Time magazine? We need to find answers to these
Give me an example that most people can relate to
about how technology is changing privacy.
You go to a grocery store and swipe your courtesy
card. It's clear to me what they could do with that.
It's not too bad--it feels like there might be a
relationship between you and your grocery store, and
maybe they'll give me a special coupon or give me a
discount on my bill the next time I come to the store.
But it's another situation altogether if they take
that list and merge it with the cell phone list of
another company, or they check it with my car's
(global positioning satellite) system and get a
triangulation map on me. I don't want my grocery store
to know that I'm in the neighborhood, even if they
send me a coupon to my cell phone. Keep in mind that I
don't know who "they" are, but "they" could do that.
Technology makes some ugly things that were never
before violations doable and simple.
How do you define privacy?
I've been struggling with this. I think it's the
ability to control information about yourself to some
extent--your personal, private information. It applies
to people, communities, governments and companies.
In the 1700s, you probably could have predicted that
Pittsburgh and Baltimore and San Francisco would
eventually become big cities because of their
positions on rivers and lakes and oceans. But
relatively few people did that at the time. Now the
big issues are privacy, technology and marketing and
research. I'm trying to understand what that will mean
for us and how they will change our lives.
How much privacy do you personally want or
Enough that by simply exercising the right to have it
you don't call attention to yourself. There's this
peer problem now. When somebody sifts through your
data in a grand jury, it doesn't mean you're guilty.
But it sure sounds like it. If you send e-mail to somebody and you've got PGP (Pretty Good Privacy file and desktop encryption products) all over it, unless you're (Electronic
Freedom Foundation co-founder) John Barlow, it's like you're walking around with tin foil on your head. People think you're a creep and you must be up to no good because you want privacy.
How much privacy does the average online user
(Sun Microsystems CEO Scott) McNealy said, "Privacy is
dead. Get over it." He's right--in the sense that
privacy is complete control over your information. If
you think of young college kids, the people who do
everything online all the time, everything they're
doing leaves a digital footprint, and they won't be
able to sweep it away. They may be looking at their
thesis papers 30 years from now. That's pretty scary.
So what? Would people behave any differently if
they knew a term paper on drug legalization would
surface when they're 45 years old?
Yeah, lots of people probably would. It causes people
to start acting the way politicians act, trying to
hide their tracks...We've seen what's happened to
presidential candidates in the past 40 years: They've
gotten vanilla. You don't see the extreme people
anymore because they're afraid.
I was a child of the late '60s and '70s. I could live
lifestyles that I couldn't live now because the
consequences weren't very bad. There weren't any
records or diseases you could get. But if I were
growing up today, and everything I did left a record...well, I probably wouldn't live differently, but I'm on the fringe. Most people probably would do things
You sound like someone who says, "Back in my day,
things were better." Doesn't the generation that was
raised in a wired world think differently about
You're right. I have five kids 14 to 22, and I raised
them by myself as a single parent until I remarried
two years ago. Three of them hit puberty in the
same three-year period. That's why my hair's gray.
Here's the difference: They don't use e-mail. They use
instant messenger. My one daughter will be talking to
the other daughter downstairs on IM. My other daughter
is going to college in Pittsburgh, and they know what
she's doing at any given time because they're all on
IM together. And then there's me: I feel IM is
repugnant. It's intrusive, and I couldn't get any work
done if I had it on.
This is the new kind of digital divide--those who opt
into this culture and those who get into all the
privacy stuff. Each one is a different species. The
cultures are predicated on privacy, or more accurately,
online identity. It's easy to see looking at my kids and me.
What are your thoughts on Passport, Microsoft's
controversial strategy to compile personal data such
as credit card numbers, addresses and purchase
Microsoft products have this tendency in which the
longer you wait to use them, the harder your life
becomes. People who used Netscape kept crashing until
they finally used Internet Explorer. That's how it's
going to be with Passport. It's not going to be a
"bang your fist on the table" command from Microsoft
to use it; it's going to be the annoyance of rebooting
and typing in your credit card numbers in over and
over that drives people to use it.
The curmudgeons who don't want to do digital things or
give away their privacy are going to be in for a rough
ride. It's going to be like trying to live without a
credit card today. You couldn't even rent a car.
So we're all going to cave on privacy?
Yeah, I think we're all going to cave. I hate to say
that, but we're going to have to deal with it. Because
of that, we need to start asking questions and have a
cultural understanding of what it all means.
Presumably people who don't use the Internet will
still have some shred of privacy. Anyone else?
There are three types of people who will not leave
footprints: the very poor, who don't have access to
the Internet; the curmudgeons--the men and women who
for one reason or another refuse to opt in; and the
very wealthy. The very wealthy don't use their own
credit cards. If I were a senator or a CEO or movie
star, I'd have somebody with me all the time solely
for the purpose of using their credit cards. If I were
a senator, I'd be pretty damn careful about not using
my credit card at a hotel or online.
There's going to be a whole new job--I don't know what
you'd call them, maybe credit gophers? They're going
to go with the Gordon Gekkos of the world and slap
down their credit cards at the hotel and online so
their employer doesn't leave a trace. (Gordon Gekko is
the acquisitive, unscrupulous arbitrageur who
declares, "Greed is good!" in the Oliver Stone classic
How do politicians make laws about privacy and
online rights? How would you do it
First, there are virtually no laws about privacy and
identity. Everyone thinks there are; it's one of the
few places where there is a mismatch between intuition
and reality. In this case, this is a pretty egregious
difference. You have the Judge (Robert) Bork video tape law (which forbids a video rental or
sales outlet from disclosing information concerning
what tapes a person borrows) but otherwise it's
One of the real problems with regulatory issues is
that politicians take the extreme fringe issues and
form their opinions from there. Take child
protection--they mean well, but it results in
draconian legislation. Instead, let's go down the
If marketers strip our online identities of
privacy, what's to stop us from creating new online
identities--or even detaching our online identities
from our real identities?
Isn't that what Hotmail is for--free accounts so you
can pretend you're not the person you really are and
keep evading the spammers? To some extent we already
do have different identities online. That's exactly
Would that cause a society of
schizophrenics--people who toggle divergent personas
whenever they turn the computer on and off?
People who are dating online, the gamers, the people
who are really rabidly political online--they already
have their own virtual identities. It's a question of
age and flexibility. Some of us won't make that gap
and will go schizo, but others will be able to fade in
and out. We already toggle between religion, family,
profession. We all swap these masks, and we're OK with
The masks aren't necessarily bad, by the way. I met my
wife on an Internet dating service. It's an unusual
experience when you're dating online. First the person
is in digital format, then on paper, then on the
telephone, then it's for real. It's pretty effective
because you don't have the judgment at first whether
they're fat or thin, tall or short. You only hear
their voice--whether they're articulate or not. Their
soul comes through much more easily.
You don't have an official job these days. What do
I'm in transition now--working with VCs, doing board
stuff, writing a book on privacy and digital identity.
I'm trying to appreciate what happens when information
changes a culture and society. I'm trying to take
polarized issues like privacy and clear my head of the
garbage everyone is throwing around and ask, "What
does this really mean?"
How would you describe yourself politically, at
least when it comes to the digital privacy issue?
I'm a forceful moderate. I say that because plain old
moderates always sound like wimps. I don't want to
call myself a liberal or libertarian; I don't want to
take extreme polarized stances on issues like privacy.
There's a middle ground, and it's not for wimps. But
no one seems to want to take it.