Private information isn’t so private

Private information isn’t so private

June 14th, 2013 // 1:10 am @

Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish included a reader’s comments about the surprise and seeming outrage about NSA data collection programs.

The commentary focuses on the Millennial Generation (previously called Generation Y) – a demographic made up of people born between the 1980s and the early 2000s. The question is whether the Millennials care about government data collection programs.

I have pared down the reader’s comments…

“I have to disagree with the outrage of your readers (and the general Internet masses) on the impact of the NSA data collection. I think everyone needs to come to grips with the realities of the Internet. It is an enormously useful tool and information exchange that is kept free and open, as it should be.

Look, using technology and the Internet is ingrained in our lives but remains completely optional and discretionary. And if you say ‘Wrong, I need this to live’ then you should be worried about more than just having your metadata mined. We have fought hard (and rightfully, I think) to keep the Internet as an open and free forum. If you say or do something in an open and free forum, it is out there for the taking.

By the way, I am 26 and far from the only millennial who I know feels this way. So we should not assume that the proliferation of private information available for the taking is going to be permanent.”

Here’s the money quote: “…we should not assume that the proliferation of private information available for the taking is going to be permanent”.

I’d like to know how the author came to that conclusion – it sounds, at best, shaky. Once ‘our information’ is elsewhere we willingly or unwillingly relinquish control of that information to someone else, who can do anything with it for as long as they like.

Plus, the assumption that the proliferation of private information available for the taking is not permanent is naive…

The cost to collect, mine, and analyze vast amounts of private information has never been lower. Private information is available for free: everything including your current location shared in tweets and photos embedded with location information; your activities through checkins and voluntary location tracking; the foods you prefer to eat; the people you know; the job your currently have along with the jobs you previously had.

From a legal perspective, warrants used to cause delays – now they’re not even necessary.

The highest cost is in collecting and storing all of this data: the analysis is far less costly as a result of advanced algorithms and data mining techniques. Moreover the NSA’s budget is classified, so it could be on par, ahead, or very far ahead of current commercial technologies and techniques.

Given all of this, the question becomes, Why wouldn’t all of this “proliferation of private information” not be permanent? I would actually find in more unreasonable if “the proliferation” wasn’t permanent!

Forbes has a great article about Internet freedom efforts in light of the NSA surveillance revelation. Here’s part of the reasoning that the proliferation of private information won’t be private – part technology and part politics & legal (emphasis mine):

“The costs of surveillance and data storage technologies are plummeting — these will no longer be prohibitive factors. Diplomatic pressures and legal barriers that had also once served as major deterrents will soon fade away. The goal has been to promote internet freedom around the world, but we may have also potentially created a blueprint for how authoritarian governments can store, track, and mine their citizens’ digital lives.”

Replace “authoritarian governments” with words like “businesses”, “[potential] employers”, “marketers”, and pretty much anything that makes sense grammatically.

A side note: One of the NSA surveillance programs collects metadata – which is actually more informative than we’d like to think; even if it’s anonymized – consider the Netflix Prize and the AOL search data leak where anonymized user 4417749 was resolved to a name along with her search history.

The collection and analysis of our respective private information is far older than we think it may be. The only difference is that we’re now aware of it (if you’re over 35, read on…)

Do you remember filing in surveys to get stuff? Do you remember sending in cereal box tops along with receipts? How about ordering those x-ray glasses from the back of a comic book? Just think about how much information you were giving up then – your age group (people under the age of 20 read comic books, you gave up your address, your receipts indicated where you shopped; the other things you bought; and when you bought them). Metadata about your phone calls was already available to more people and agencies than those to that have access to it today (privacy was not a major consideration at the time); if someone really wanted to, they could read your mail; your banking records became increasingly easy to acquire over time.


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