Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Personal Data

Media outlets in the last few days have revealed that Americans spy on Americans; and Americans spy on Canadians; and some are concerned that Canadians might be spying on Canadians. Hmmm, we have systems that allow our spouses or parents to track where our phone is located, programs that allow us to know who has looked at our blog-site, website, or FaceBook page. We routinely give out our personal information to websites, email lists, music services, banks, and social networking sites. We trade our email address for a chance to win a prize or for a free download of a recording of music. We know that others will contact us through that email address and so what we are really giving them is more of our time that will be used for reading or deleting the emails that will come; or for unsubscribing to email lists. Many of us give out a little more information about ourselves so that we can rank higher on search engines or so that we can have more fans on our band site or our blog. We allow our copyrighted work to be streamed for free so that others might be introduced to our work. I have both a band site and a blog - what does that say about me?

We gave up land-lines for the convenience of cell phones. Land-lines had specific rules about when it was legal and when it was illegal to "tap" the line. Now anyone with a listening device can scoop conversations out of the cell phone transmissions all around us. Prince Charles learned this the hard way and taught us all a lesson. The microphones on our cell phones can also be remotely activated without our knowledge such that they become an active listening device even when we are not on the phone. We knew all this was possible and still we chose convenience over privacy.

Suddenly, there is concern that people have access to our data. What were we thinking when we opened Pandora's Box? We wring our hands and lament the days when our data was our data. How do we stuff all the bytes back inside the box? The reality is that digital information is very easy to steal, trace, and exploit. The movie Minority Report predicted how personal information could be linked to purchasing histories to suggest the likelihood of someone making a similar purchase in the future. Is this not exactly what happens when we allow "cookies" to be placed inside the browsers on our computers? Amazon and Google readily use this information to inform ad placements and suggestions for the use of advertising dollars. The movie also showed how a citizen's life could be monitored to predict when they might contemplate or commit a crime. Might we also expect such surveillance to become a reality?

I am quite confident that we are sufficiently enamoured with technology and convenience that we will continue down this path despite the costs. As Gaby Hinsliff said in The Times, "Personal data has simply become the way we pay for things we don't want to buy with actual money."1 The media will stir up some concern for a little while but this is only a small dust-up. We will soon calm down and go back to business as usual, enjoying our credit-card chips, our "swipe and pays", and our free birthday lattes; and our governments will quietly go back to building the necessary frameworks to create an even better surveillance system (think, J.J. Abrams' Person of Interest). Ah, the convenience of it all!


1 Gaby Hinsliff, Columnist, The Times, London, June 10, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22842747

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