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Opinions are fun. My friends tell me I am someone with lots of opinions and that's fine since I don't get mad at others when they disagree with me. In this same spirit I am interested in hearing yours views as long as you are able to share your views without boiling over. I look forward to hearing from you. I tend to write in the form of short essays most of the time, but contributions do not need to be in this same format or size. Some of the content here will date itself pretty quickly, other content may be virtually timeless, this is for the reader to judge.

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Privacy and Secrets                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Jun/27/2013 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Behavior, People, Perspectives,

For my kids the use of social networking tools like Facebook have become common place. Many young people have grown up with this technology concurrently sharing all aspects of their life on their public walls. The entries can be announcements of events and career changes to details that inform the world of what movie they will be going to see in the next 10 minutes and their rating of the person they went out with the previous evening. This is a great way to share with your friends and family, but this data is also mined by a wide group including home burglars, identity thieves, retailers and potential employers.

The recent reports of a domestic data gathering programs by the National Security Agency (NSA) have also garnered a great deal of attention. Effectively, they are capturing the “metadata” of trillions of phone calls and emails and storing this data for later analysis. This “metadata” is very similar to the data you get printed on a phone bill; it includes the source and destination numbers along with length of the call. The internet data is mostly source and destination IP addresses. In theory, the NSA’s plan with all this data is to look for patterns of communication, especially overseas. I suspect that many of the queries are driven by advanced intelligence on specific individuals. Currently there is no overarching ability to tap into and record individual phone calls except on a case by case basis. I question whether there have been any real success stories associated with the mining of this data despite the scale of the effort. There is also the obvious question of whether this is an invasion of constitutionally protected privacy despite the generic nature of the data.

When briefing Congress on these programs, the NSA often fell back on the “needle in the haystack” metaphor. They argue that accumulating this data is similar to collecting haystacks, and then when they know the needle/data they need to search for they can start sifting through the haystack. It sounds terribly inefficient to me, but as government programs go, that shouldn’t be a surprise. While accumulating all this data in the short term does not seem to pose much personal risk, I expect that as our knowledge and use of large blocks of meta-data evolves there will be lots of opportunity for abuse.

Retailers are actually years ahead of the NSA in what they know about you. By signing up for a “membership card” at various retailers you have given them the ability to store and analyze all your shopping habits. In the simplest interpretation, your grocery store is printing coupons specifically tailored to your buying habits when you go through the checkout line. This happens because they have been tracking your specific purchasing habits every time you enter your phone number or swipe your membership card. Part of why the retailer can offer you a discount when you enter in your membership is because they are able to actually sell the data on your buying habits to other retailers and marketing companies. When analysis and marketing companies merge the data from your retail habits of 3 or more businesses they get a pretty clear outline of your demographics from the number of children to your likely income level and health trends. Effectively, you are being profiled by all the items you purchase. A side effect of this is all the advertizing materials that appear in your mail box. A detailed review would show you that you and your neighbors do not always get exactly the same offers based on an analysis of your purchasing habits and learned demographics.

An extension of this is the connectedness of financial records. Merely by paying a fee to a credit checking service, a potential landlord can find out how much credit debt you have, payment history and your income/employment history. The reports do not include actual account numbers, but to garner all this information the banks need to be openly sharing a lot of information that I would prefer be kept private.

Another challenge to the notion of privacy is the proliferation of cameras. Cameras first appeared on bank doors and ATM’s. Now, nearly every retailer has a security camera aimed at their door and many others to complement their security system. Municipalities have added cameras at key intersections and neighborhoods to monitor traffic and aid police in protecting public safety. the dearth of cameras is further attenuated by the wide use and distribution of modern cell phones, nearly all of which have some video recording capability. It is difficult to imagine going anywhere in a large city without having your actions recorded. The down side of all the cameras is that none of us are perfect all the time despite what you mother told you. If you make a rude gesture, scratch your backside, have dandruff, trip on cracks in the sidewalk, or have a nervous twitch, it is likely being recorded by someone; thank goodness I am not as interesting a person to follow, scrutinize, and publicize as a Hollywood celebrity. The good side of all these cameras is the amount of data that is available when something goes wrong. A recent example of this is the Boston Marathon bombing. The contemporary police investigation stalled very quickly, the investigators then began review video and calling for all the video and still picture that were on people’s private cell phones. Within 36 hours of calling for all this data they had viable suspects and were rapidly running them to ground. This particular phenomenon for capturing data from a large group is called “crowdsourcing.”

Much of American culture is mired in the tug-of-war between privacy and security. As you achieve more of one, you have to take from the other…no one ever said democracy was perfect. I suppose that when looking at the challenges being faced in so many other nations of the world, we should consider it a luxury to openly debate such things without risk of prison. In our information intensive age we are stretching this rope to new limits. Many people when polled do not seem to feel this is an unreasonable intrusion in exchange for increased safety, but these may really just be rationalization to slide down the slippery slope.

Defending the NSA’s blanket surveillance program of American phone records, Senator Dianne Feinstein said “This is just metadata. There is no content involved.” I’m more than a little confused here; at what point does accumulating and correlating data on a private citizen become an invasion of privacy? Calling it ‘Metadata’ doesn’t make the surveillance any less intrusive.

There term metadata has until now, not been part of the general lexicon, instead it has been confined to the realm librarians and computer programmers. Essentially, metadata is the data that describes the document, file, person or object it is linked to. The penciled notes on the back of old photographs are metadata along with the GPS locations and phone number logs of every call a person makes.

Maybe this is really a war of terminology. There is “big data,” “data mining” and now we have the latest family member, metadata. There is a popular definition that “data” is the raw material that becomes information only when it is processed or filtered in some way that makes it more meaningful. This is really splitting hairs to me; because for all practical purposes I view data and information as nearly interchangeable. Maybe with the millions of terabytes of stuff we accumulate each day we do now need to distinguish between data and information adding granularity to the terms.

Websites, hosting services and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are rich with this data. Their focus is on who visits which IP and clicks on which ads. All of this is with the intent of ensuring their advertisers know who is going where and giving that person more ads and links of the type they have already clicked on. Whether or not you think the government should be sweeping this stuff up and calling it metadata doesn't make the process any less intrusive. Tell me where you’ve been, who you’re talking to, what you buy and what links you click on; I suspect I can tell you about your finances, politics, health and probably your sexual orientation. Clearly, with modern database technology, the transition from data to real and specific information is pretty easy.

The NSA insists it needs to trawl for all this data and their defenders maintain we have to be willing to trade some privacy for security. I am not sure that argument is wrong, but slippery slopes come with no defined or manageable boundaries. Advocates of the surveillance have soft-pedaled its intrusiveness while hardliners argue as if your right to privacy ends as soon as you lick and seal the envelope that can be held up to a bright light. The president said that sifting through the metadata involves just "modest encroachments on privacy." James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, compared the programs to combing through a library with millions of volumes and sorting them by their Dewey decimal numbers, without actually opening and reading them. Unfortunately, Mr. Clapper’s analogy I think is grossly understated. In his library, it is more like opening the back cover of every book to see whose name is on the borrowers’ card and drawing conclusions about you by your reading list.

Security is important to me, but so is privacy. Programs like this remind me of Science Fiction novels where society is challenged by the actions of “thought police.” I don’t want to be pre-judged based on what I read or who I talk to. You can call it data, metadata or information, but the consequences for its summary, analysis and potential abuse is still a glaring incursion into the realm of what we once called privacy. The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that our privacy is limited to our home and person, but never before have our lives been so publically networked and intertwined.

Secrets may be obsolete in our modern era. I know my children share things with their peers and the general public that I would have never considered at the same age. I suspect that it is a healthier attitude to not worry as much about keeping secrets. Nevertheless, when government agencies are capturing all this personal data and information it does not seem to happen with a specific target or goal. Instead, all the data trawling and intrusive practices seem to happen “just because we can.”

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