Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Information Privacy: part I

Have you ever had the feeling that someone was watching you? That you really weren’t alone? If you’ve had that hunch, it was the correct one. At every turn in our lives we are being tracked, examined, and followed. Often in ways we have never imagined. Over the next few installments of this blog, I will take a look at information privacy.

It is nearly impossible to maneuver in modern society without generating a trail of data which, no matter how hard one tries to be stealthy, is as easy to track as the spoor of an elephant, stricken with diarrhea, running through a flour mill. At almost every step along your path, data collectors will be hot on your trail, plying their trade:

. . .service companies attempt to fill their files with any information they can get – at a minimum, personal information from forms like names, addresses, and phone numbers. Many require additional data, like birthdays and spouses’ names. Some try to get Social Security numbers or at least driver’s license numbers.[1]

Even the most uniformed netizen is aware of the danger posed to their personal data by hackers, although they may not be aware of the scope of the problem:

Last year [2007], 127 million sensitive electronic and paper records (those containing Social Security numbers and the like) were hacked or lost – a nearly 650 percent increase in data breaches from the previous year. Also last year, news broke that hackers had stolen between 45 million and 94 million credit card numbers from the databases of the retail company TJX, in one of the biggest data breaches in history. Last November, The British government admitted losing computer discs containing personal data for 25 million people, which is almost half the country’s population.[2]

These were just a sampling of the security breaches that were reported. There are bound to be many more because many go unreported since corporations do not want their customers to think that the customer’s data is not safe in the company’s hands. That would be bad for business.

Hackers and thieves, however, are the least of your problems when it comes to the erosion of privacy. You have more to fear from the governmental agencies which were designed to serve, protect, and keep us safe and the corporations with which you do business. Those entities are quite interested in gathering as much data as they can about us.

Governments are, perhaps, the most interested in finding out more about you. According to the Daily Mail, there are, on average, 28,000 requests filed by governmental agencies to intercept personal data, such as tapping phone or data lines, each month in the United Kingdom alone.[3] Phil Booth, of the NO2ID Campaign, a group which is fighting against the government’s ease of access to the average citizen’s data explained, "You have to apply to a court to tap an Al Qaeda terrorist, but a council worker can check your phone calls with a simple request. The potential for abuse is enormous."[4]

This assault on privacy is multiplied by the ease by which governmental or corporate entities can access your personal data:

Privacy-minded people have long warned of a world in which corporations and governments can peer at will into your life with a few keystrokes on a computer. Now one of the people in charge of information-gathering for the U.S. government (Donald Kerr, principal director of National Intelligence) says, essentially, that such a world has arrived. [5]

Perhaps more egregious are the corporations whose desire to know us better is driven purely by profit. These are companies who collect information about us simply so that they can sell it to the highest bidder. While it may be true that when one's body is broken down into its composite elemental components it is only worth a few dollars, the data that can be compiled about that body is worth a good deal more:

A consumer record with up-to-date information is worth around $200 for cell phone information. Social Security information sells for $60 and a student’s university class schedule goes for $80.[6]

The sale of mailing lists, in 2004 alone, created three billion dollars in revenue for these companies.[7] That’s why you receive so many catalogs, solicitations from charities, healing oil packets from televangelists, or credit card offers in the mail. Every time you purchase from or donate to one of those solicitations, you are put on special “gold lists” which are worth even more and mean you get more and more junk mail.

Your name, address, and phone number are valuable by themselves. Your remaining information, when it is added to the mix, can make the data a goldmine for marketers, government agencies, and some people who might surprise you. Next time: data aggregation.

[1] David Holtzman, Privacy Lost: How Technology is Endangering Your Privacy, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 10.
[2] Catherine Price, “The Anonymity Experiment,” Popular Science (March 2008), 60.
[3] James Slack, “Revealed: 800 Public Bodies Now Have Powers to ‘Snoop’ on our Phones and Emails,” London Daily Mail, January 30, 2008, .
[4] Ibid.
[5] Price, 61.
[6] Holtzman, 10.
[7] Daniel J. Solove, The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age, (NY: New York University, 2004), 19.

- Dr. B. Keith Murphy is Interim Associate Dean, College of Arts and Sciences, Fort Valley State University

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