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The Scary Truth About Privacy

2012 February 26
by Greg Satell

How much are you willing to bare?  Chances are, you don’t think about it too much.  Privacy is something we don’t think about constantly, we just expect it to be there when we need it.

We can, of course, consent to waive our right to privacy and often do.  We share our address so that goods can be delivered, our financial information to be afforded credit, our medical information so that we can be cured and details of our life to friends to establish intimacy.

In other words, we draw lines.  We share some things with some people and other things with others.  We compartmentalize data according to its purpose.  However, technology is breaking down those containers and the repercussions will be wide ranging and pervasive. As a society, we have hardly begun to grasp the issues, much less deal with them.

Online Privacy

It’s fairly well established that online privacy is a problem.  We share things on Facebook and Google+ and they are there for all to see.  There are privacy settings, of course, but those can be complicated and change frequently.  So, most of us know that when we put something on a social network, we are implicitly agreeing that people will see it.

However, we are also sharing data we scarcely realize.  When we visit a site, we generate a cookie that the server uses to identify us.  Generally, that’s a good thing because we like to be remembered.  Just like when we visit an offline shop, it makes life easier and more pleasant to have them remember who we are, what we like and what we don’t.

What most of us don’t know is that the cookie is stored and shared.  So when we visit a site like Gap.com or Best Buy, they have the ability to collate the cookies we generate on their site with those from other sites.  Then, when we show up on ESPN.com to check out the scores, they can give us another shot at those khakis we passed up on. (This article gives a good overview of how it all works).

I should mention here that companies go to great pains to sequester data so that we stay anonymous (i.e. they know we looked at khakis and like sports, but don’t combine that information with our address and kid’s names) and there is some legislation to protect us. Still, our data is out there, just one algorithm away from a complete profile.

Offline Privacy

We can, of course, disable the cookies on our computer or, if we’re really vigilant, stay offline altogether and pay in cash, but we can not stay off the street and maintain any semblance of a normal life.  That’s a problem, because there are cameras everywhere and they’re only getting cheaper, higher in quality and more ubiquitous.

It doesn’t stop there.  Facial recognition technology is improving as well.  So if someone has our picture associated with any other data in their database, they can know who we are, where we live and so on.  Even without previously collected data they can detect things like age and gender, keep that information stored and wait for more to come their way.

And, of course, it’s only one step away from collating our offline data with our online data. So they will not only know that we like khakis and sports, but what we look like, what places we frequent, what time we normally commute and when we’re likely to be out of town.  In fact, our smartphones already store much of that information.

Biological Privacy

Online cookies, facial recognition, Big Data, these technologies are moving at blinding speed.  Yet still, even they are improving at a snail’s pace when compared to bioinformatics. The cost to sequence an entire genome has fallen from billions of dollars a decade ago to less than $10,000 today.  Many believe that it will fall to less than $100 in the near future.

It doesn’t stop there.  New T-ray technology that already is in use in airport screening devices will soon be deployed in real life tricorders that can perform diagnostic scans in a few seconds and detect anomalies that indicate disease.  Results can then be sent to advanced diagnostic software that can track our health.

Just like with online cookies and facial recognition technology, there is no technical reason that biological data can’t be collated with online shopping habits, location data and “interest graphs.”  As Kevin Kelly notes, all of that information is being uploaded to the Technium, which is itself becoming increasingly sentient.

Questions Without Answers

All of this is not, as some would have us believe, some kind of Orwellian conspiracy dreamed up by the Military-Industrial complex in order to rob us of our natural liberties. Quite to the contrary, it is the work of well-meaning engineers who are working tirelessly to make our lives healthier and more enjoyable.

What’s more, these technologies gain traction because we like the benefits they provide. We prefer that web sites remember our preferences, we all hope that doctors discover cancer sooner rather than later and even advertising provides real benefits when it offers us something we truly want or need.

However, the new technology does raise some questions that we’re not prepared to answer, such as:

Should insurance companies be allowed to charge us more if we are genetically predisposed to disease?

What data should employers be able to access?

What is the value of our privacy?  What damages are we entitled to if it is breached?

Should those who are more genetically predisposed to become wealthy pay higher tax rates?

Should those who are genetically predisposed to crime be issued lighter sentences?

These questions, some of which have been debated by philosophers for decades, will become quite practical in a relatively short amount of time and we are ill-equipped to deal with them.  At the moment, even the fairly elementary issue of jurisdiction (local, state, federal, international) is a murky one.

Nevertheless, we will have to address them in one way or another.  The scary thing is not that we don’t yet have answers, but we have yet even to begin to ponder the questions in any serious way.

– Greg

8 Responses
  1. February 26, 2012

    Greg,

    Have you considered generational differences in attitudes to privacy.

    I think the “old” are more scared than the young.

    Interestingly I have found privacy to be the overwhelming issue with most students in relation to e-Safety but this was almost all a concern with how the “old” access them – institutions, corporations, governments, police etc.

    It is the “old” who are used to being hidden – the power of opaqueness (secrecy, corruption etc)

    It is the old who fear transparency (Wkileaks etc)

    Possibly the future will be different.

    For a radical view of a transparent future have a read of “The light of other days” – Arther C Clark and Stephen Baxter
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Light_of_Other_Days

    Greg Reply:

    Martin,

    Yes, I do think that there is a substantive difference between how young and old view privacy. However, I do think that privacy and transparency are separate issues. Transparency implies a right to know, while privacy does not. Central to both issues though, is consent.

    Certainly, people in public life consent to waive their privacy in a way that someone making a purchase or taking a blood test does not.

    – Greg

  2. Ajoy Vakil permalink
    February 26, 2012

    Thanks Greg, for this wake-up call!

    Ajoy

    Greg Reply:

    You’re welcome Ajoy:-)

    – Greg

  3. February 26, 2012

    How shall we be guaranteed of online safety from hacking and phising?

    Greg Reply:

    Make sure you keep your anti-vitus software updated.

    Greg

  4. February 26, 2012

    I had no idea. You explained this so well. thank you.
    Malika Bourne

    Greg Reply:

    I’m glad it was helpful. Thanks.

    – Greg

Comments are closed.