Privacy is SO last decade

Of all the issues I’ve tried to explain to non-ACLUers, often the hardest is the right to privacy. It often seems to be just something you feel at a gut level–either the idea that the government has a list of phone calls you’ve made either creeps you out or it doesn’t.

Since the revelation about NSA warrantless wiretaps, I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve heard “I haven’t done anything wrong so why should I care?”. People are similarly unconcerned with the vast array of data private companies are gathering on individuals. This data collection has become all the more ominous lately, given that many companies seem to have no compunction about turning data over to the government, and laws like the PATRIOT Act make it easier for the government to compel those who may be reluctant to do so.

Well, today’s article in the NY Times about AOL’s posting of web search records for over 650,000 individuals on its website certainly helps make it easier to talk about privacy issues.(Incidentally the records were taken down, but not before the information was copied). Individuals were identified only by a unique identifier number, rather than names, and their entire search history for the past three months was listed. Despite the lack of names, the searches alone were enough for two NY Times reporters to track down the identity of one woman.

No. 4417749 conducted hundreds of searches over a three-month period on topics ranging from “numb fingers” to “60 single men” to “dog that urinates on everything.”

And search by search, click by click, the identity of AOL user No. 4417749 became easier to discern. There are queries for “landscapers in Lilburn, Ga,” several people with the last name Arnold and “homes sold in shadow lake subdivision gwinnett county georgia.”

It did not take much investigating to follow that data trail to Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow who lives in Lilburn, Ga., frequently researches her friends’ medical ailments and loves her three dogs. “Those are my searches,” she said, after a reporter read part of the list to her.

For some really interesting commentary on the AOL release of data and the ease of identifying individual identities through data-mining searches, check out these entries from Bruce Schneier and David Berlind at Between the Lines. (You should also check out Berlind’s original posting on the release of the data. It provides some disturbing (and sometimes amusing) portraits of some of these search patterns revealed in the data.

4 thoughts on “Privacy is SO last decade

  1. I’ve run into the “If you don’t do anything wrong…” mentality.

    What people don’t understand is that it’s not always about *them*

    If you trust your government not to misuse the information, I can see it being a little less urgent.

    But we’re in the Bush world.

    What would stop someone from finding out what a Democratic candidate is up to? Find out who they call, even if they don’t have the content of the call?

    It would be so easy to gain an advantage by using supposedly private information.

    And, I’m sorry, but *no one* is good enough not to have anything they don’t want found out.

    Sooner or later, everyone gets caught.

  2. So, lets face facts, anyone visiting this web site from AOL could well have been identified already, and if so may well find themselves on a watch list – whats next, the U.S version of “nacht und nebel” ?

  3. And for those with the “if you don’t do anything wrong…” mentality, it’s not just the government that has access to this information. There are three other constituents that I can think of.

    Legitimate companies prospecting for sales opportunities – think more spam and more unwanted targeted sales.

    Nosey neighbours poking around in your business. If the information is out there, who can resist a peek?

    And let’s not forget the dreaded nefarious individual, out to do some harm or gain an unlawful pecuniary advantage. Let’s see here, this individual is searching for siding so let’s pose as reputable siding salesmen. And this 85 year old widow is looking for financial advice…

    Privacy concerns are for real.

    Cheers, Neil.

  4. Mad Scotsman is correct in saying that it is not only governments but both private and public institutions we must also guard against exploiting personally identifiable information.

    Credit agencies, retail stores, certain ‘religious’ groups, web sites, perhaps even your vet could accidentally reveal private and confidential information about you.

    But I don’t believe the blame lies only with Bush; for it is all of our elected respresentatives who share equal blame, and by proxy, all of us who voted these politicians into office. In America, Congress and the House pass bills that become law. The President is unable to do anything by himself. Of course, it’s easy to say that it’s the fault of Republicans, but that would be inaccurate. The truth is that both Democrats and Republicans have consistently compromised in the hopes of furthering individual and party agendas.

    If you want to change how things are now, then perhaps the most sensible thing is to not vote for ANY incumbent politician for either party. And perhaps it is finally time to really shake things up in our governments around the world. Don’t vote for anyone who is presently serving in government, for none of them appear to have our best interests in mind, for they only believe in their own misguided agendas.

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