Tuesday, March 25

The end of privacy

A Company Promises the Deepest Data Mining Yet (New York Times)
An Inalienable Right to Privacy (Coding Horror)

Is privacy possible in the digital age? Privacy through obscurity used to be a great strategy; the idea was that there are so many people "out there" that there's virtually no chance you will be noticed. And even if you were noticed, even if information was being kept about you, what are the odds that the information from various sources would be consolidated into one place? Who cares if you download porn, or search the Internet for information about depression, or write love notes to your secret girlfriend? And what are the chances that the information will fall into the hands of your boss, your spouse, or your insurance company?

In the digital age, I'm sad to say that privacy through obscurity has thoroughly collapsed. Once companies realized a few years ago that consumers will rarely pay for content on the Internet, the focus shifted to targeted ads as the primary way to generate revenue on the Internet. And with that shift, there has been a mad dash to collect and consolidate as much information as possible about every Internet user. There is a lot of money to be made by gathering as much information as possible about you and selling that information to every company that might want to market to you.

This short New York Times piece describes the efforts of one such company, Phorm, that has developed a tool to track every single action you take on the Internet. They are trying to negotiate deals with major broadband Internet providers in the U.S., such that their tool will be used by the Internet provider to generate massive amounts of data about each of its users, which will then be sold to third parties. Three major Internet service providers in Britain have already signed on with Phorm, which gives Phorm access to the surfing habits of 70% of British households with broadband.

This technology is not new, for sure: Spyware and other covert mechanisms for tracking your Internet activity have existed for many years. However, participation by Internet service providers represents a fundamental shift in the power and scope of this technology.

I can only begin to address the implications of technology that can compile a profile of your complete Internet behavior, especially when that profile will be connected to and meshed with the other digital data that exists about you. Unquestionably, your personal data will be sold without your permission. It will make its way to individuals and companies that you wish didn't have access to that data. It will be lost (probably without your knowledge), it will be filled with errors (which you probably won't be able to correct), and it will be sold on the black market. Imagine if you could purchase a file listing the complete Internet habits of any individual for a small price. Would you buy it, to learn about your potential mate, or to get back at your ex? Would your potential employer buy it, to learn about your personal habits? Would your insurance company buy it, to see if you have written any emails about a medical condition? This is just the beginning.

Still not convinced that your privacy is worth protecting? This post on Coding Horror argues that you should protect your privacy, even if you don't think you have anything to hide.

1 comment:

Gregory Brown said...

I have to admit I've been pretty naive about this issue. I guess I always thought I would blend in, or I don't have anything to hide. While I was reading your post, however, I was already contemplating using libraries and other public computers. I'm not sure that even that would work.

Keep up the good work.