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Doug's Mailbag: Internet Killed Privacy

One reader makes the case that we cannot go back to a private world after the rise of the Internet:

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that there is no way short of leaving the Internet in its entirety that anyone can hope to reclaim some semblance of privacy as we once knew it. And even then, the person leaving the Internet has left footprints all over the virtual veldt.

The Internet is a network of networks. People who are interested in gathering intelligence on their fellow human beings have all the interconnectedness they need to hunt down that sort of information. And we, the Internet users, are all too willing to share it, in order to have access to the services that the first group provide as an incentive to get that information they crave. Add to that automated daemons that scour the net for information of interest, and massive database engines that collect, collate and corroborate all the myriad bits and bytes, and you have the greatest privacy destruction engine the world has ever seen. And if you're interested in your privacy, don't expect the governments of our nation states to come to your rescue -- it's in its best interest to be able to accumulate as much information on its citizens as it can in order to facilitate social cohesion and stability.

Does this sound too cynical? Too cut and dried? Really? When the UK is becoming a surveillance society, when we have Congress considering CISPA, when we have Facebook hoovering up information daily by the terabyte, is this really anything more than a précis of the true situation? Privacy as we knew it died a long time ago; we're now arguing about its dried-out corpse. Pandora's box was opened; the demons have multiplied, and even a bigger box is not going to retrieve them.


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Posted by Doug Barney on 04/25/2012 at 1:19 PM

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Reader Comments:

Wed, Apr 25, 2012 Joshua

One ray of hope (if you can call it that): Many (most? all?) large scale data integration projects have been expensive dismal failures. Total Information Awareness, IRS and Social Security re-engineering, Defense Department system unification, all ran up against huge issues of technical and semantic inconsistency. The Ultimate Megabase of personally-identified information is still some distance away.

Wed, Apr 25, 2012 Joshua

Den notes that the government's self-interest is in privacy destruction, not protection. I would add: the same goes for the corporations and criminal elements. Perhaps bribery of officials (as in Wal-mart) will be replaced by blackmail. Perhaps opponents of (e.g.) fracking will find their online data is mysteriously available to the companies they are protesting. It is simply prudent to assume that once data is collected, somebody will try to use it -- for their purposes, not necessarily yours.

Wed, Apr 25, 2012 Den Kansas City

We might want to define the term "privacy" before proceeding any further. My definition runs like this: Control of access to information about oneself that can be used to identify that person, and their property, occupation, hobbies, interests, beliefs, and so forth, versus the same attributes of other persons. If that's what we're talking about, then we'll discover that we have already relinquished a LOT of control to our privacy, as we've made use of insurance companies, real estate listings, services like Linked-In, Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. We've provided each of these entities with personally relevant information in order to make use of their services; in most cases, we had to, because such sharing of information was required. So by that standard, our privacy is already much thinner than it used to be. In the past, before the advent of the internet, such information was still shared with corporate and governmental entities, but it was harder to get at and make use of, because of the way it was stored. Silos of isolation were the mode of the day; they provided firewalls that protected our privacy, even if only inadvertently. Now, it's all different - databases talk to databases, records are collated against other records, and profiles emerge that are digital equivalents of the people they represent. In many cases the information may be partial, or incorrect, but the profiles exist nonetheless. So, our ability to be the gatekeepers of our own information is seriously diminished by the technology that is all around us now. We're in this headlong rush to interconnect everything, in order to have smoother access to a world of digitally provided services. We're a little late in recognizing that we've already lost most of our privacy. The internet used to be a small town where everyone knew everybody else, and people left their doors unlocked, without any sense of fear that their stuff would be taken. With the privatization of the internet, that idyllic dream blew away in a puff of smoke; suddenly it was the big city, where you had to lock your door with multiple locks and keep a watchful eye for intruders. Now, with all the conversations going on between our digital servants, we're back in the small town again, where we're all known in great detail. At least, we're all known by someone, and it's not necessarily our neighbors. And it may not even be human. Or am I wrong - the Supreme Court says that corporations are effectively human beings...

Wed, Apr 25, 2012

The only way anyone can have any hope of controlling our privacy is to have a law that says information about a person should below to that person. Isn’t that the way it should be? After all, doesn’t each person provide the value to information about them? Wouldn’t fix the problem, but would give us a fighting chance.

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