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We need a much better grip on privacy issues

In today’s New York Times, John Markoff has an excellent piece on collective intelligence.  This is a field of study that sifts through the oceans of digital information being recorded by an ever increasing thicket of sensors, from phones to GPS units to the tags in office ID badges, that capture our movements and interactions. This data is then coupled with information already gathered from sources like Web surfing and credit cards. Collective intelligence could make it possible for insurance companies, for example, to use behavioral data to covertly identify people suffering from a particular disease and deny them insurance coverage. Similarly, the government or law enforcement agencies could identify members of a protest group by tracking social networks revealed by the new technology. “There are so many uses for this technology – from marketing to war fighting – that I can’t imagine it not pervading our lives in just the next few years,” says Steve Steinberg, a computer scientist who works for an investment firm in New York. In a widely read Web posting, he argued that there were significant chances that it would be misused, “This is one of the most significant technology trends I have seen in years; it may also be one of the most pernicious.” For the last 50 years, Americans have worried about the privacy of the individual in the computer age. But new technologies have become so powerful that protecting individual privacy may no longer be the only issue. Now, with the Internet, wireless sensors, and the capability to analyze an avalanche of data, a person’s profile can be drawn without monitoring him or her directly. “Some have argued that with new technology there is a diminished expectation of privacy,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy rights group in Washington. “But the opposite may also be true. New techniques may require us to expand our understanding of privacy and to address the impact that data collection has on groups of individuals and not simply a single person.” I have long argued privacy is one of the most underestimated issues of our time.  In 1995, I co-authored with privacy expert Ann Cavoukian the book Who Knows: Safeguarding Your Privacy In a Networked World.  Our focus was on an individual’s privacy and best practices.  We were alarmed how many individuals sacrificed nonchalantly their privacy in exchange for bonus products from a company or improved customer service.  The approach some people have to privacy is:  “who cares?”  I still maintain that is their right to hold this belief, but individuals should make an informed choice and understand the potential costs of their decisions to forfeit their privacy. I fear that more often than not this isn’t the case. In Grown Up Digital I looked at the enormous harm that could result from individuals, usually young people, posting online any thoughts and photos they can come up with, including last night’s keg party. This is reckless and wrong. Many companies check an applicant’s Facebook profile as standard procedure during the hiring process, and new stories arise daily of young people not being hired because of inappropriate material on the Internet. Kudos to Markoff for flagging yet another dimension to the privacy issue.  One looks to the Obama administration to show leadership in helping citizens fully understand the many facets of privacy and developing the full range of safeguards needed.

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