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George Orwell would have been so proud

By Andrew Pollack on 07/03/2008 at 09:29 AM EDT

Well, actually I doubt he'd have been "Proud" as it were, given that his work was meant to be a warning as much as a predictor. It may be that instead of "Proud" I should say he would have been dismayed by our inability to avoid so much of his forewarning.

Stories today by Mike Gotta and Ian White (writing on the Collaboration 2.0 blog at CW) have got me thinking again about how much data is being compiled every day about us. A great deal of what we watch, read, write, and who we talk to is logged and can be tracked now. Consider these avenues, all of which can provide tracking information:

* Your TV watching habits - if you've got digital cable or use some DVR's the list of what you watch is logged somewhere. Is it really kept anonymous?

* The web sites you visit - At work, your company probably has logs of sites you visit. At home, your internet provider absolutely can track the sites you visit unless you go to extraordinary means to prevent it. Some consumer providers are now trying to sell that information upstream to ad providers to "customize" the ads you see.

* The people you talk to - Your telephone calls are logged. That information is available to governments. Depending on where you live, this can be very easy or fairly hard for them to get.

* The things you write - blog comments as well as authored stories can easily come back at you years later. With enough work, comments can be traced back through the combination of web site logs, email validations, and so on. Maybe you don't authenticate on a site and you think your post is anonymous. Any good investigator can still use the address you used to post to correlate with another site you've used from the same address but did log in. That kind of data mining is getting more and more popular.

* The books you buy - Do you buy books from a major retailer? Do you use a credit card? Tie the person to the credit card, then to the transaction and your reading habits become an open book.

* The places we go - Do you use a transponder to pay tolls? Systems like Easy-Pass collect data on where we go, how often, and at what times. Next generation sat-nav devices will add to our convenience by communicating real-time road conditions back to the central database so that routing can be smarter. This will also provide incredibly rich data about exactly where on the road you are at any given minute of the day. Your cell phone can already provide somewhat less granular details about your location just by registering with different local cellular towers, and newer models can report your location with gps tracking.

* Consider supposedly anonymous tracking cookies. The tracking site only knows the id of your cookie, not who you are. Suppose though, that at just one site that uses the same tracking cookie you have an authenticated session. Bingo. All the other sites you've visited can be tied back to that same authenticated ID.

Most of this is fairly harmless right now for only a few very thin reasons. First, the sheer volume of data makes using it impractical for all but the most critical things. That won't last. Data mining technologies get more sophisticated every day. Concepts like data "cubes" used by Cognos and other data warehouse models are amazing. Hard disk space gets cheaper as processing power gets faster. Today's four hundred dollar PC has more power than any server you'd likely have used a few years ago. Hard disk space is now under $200 per TERABYTE to consumers. The second reason we see this creeping encroachment on privacy as "mostly harmless" is that so far nobody is using it against us for much more than bad advertising. Most of us don't suffer from an authoritative police state regime bent on using this data against us (political hyperbole aside, even the current administration isn't purposely using this stuff against its citizens).

What happens when someone does decide to really take advantage of all this data? Maybe it won't be the Orwellian nightmare of 1984, but would the hidden repression and social pressure so well illustrated in Gattaca be any better?

There are  - loading -  comments....

re: George Orwell would have been so proudBy Dwight Wilbanks on 07/03/2008 at 12:41 PM EDT
re: George Orwell would have been so proudBy Rob McDonagh on 07/03/2008 at 01:18 PM EDT
Completely agree, as you probably expected. What do we do about it, though?
Legal protections aren't really sufficient, as the current US administration
has proven. Constitutional Amendment for the right to privacy? Good luck,
given Roe v Wade's political impact. Technical solutions? Do we all become
like Cory Doctorow's teenagers in "Little Brother," deliberately creating so
much noise in the data stream that the information is meaningless? I don't
have a good answer, but I would very much like to find one...

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