You can run, but you can’t hide

When I wrote back in January that 2013 would be the Year of Privacy, never did I imagine that the topic would explode to include government spying. Whilst there might seem to be a tacit acceptance by users that their private data be mined for business benefit (the topic of my previous posts), the debate suddenly strikes a chord when the government does the snooping. The breadth and depth of the spying, not to mention its illicit nature and lack of due process, has shocked the world.

Be that as it may, I cannot emphasise enough that if we want to maintain our privacy, we should be careful in what we publicly say as well. For it turns out that there is so much insight and intelligence that can be gleaned from public data, specially data that is posted on social media. A US government project, since disbanded, called Quantum Leap, data-mined social media information, with the help of sophisticated software that sifts through huge amounts of data, to help build connections and social profiles. All this can be done without the requirement of search warrants and other legal checks-and-balances, since that information is public. Quantum Leap, an experiment due to last 6 months, started on a money laundering scenario, to try to catch the criminals.

This is a good example illustrating the distinction between “public information” and “obscure information”. We have always had information that was public but was difficult to reach, or required specialist knowledge or too much effort to dig up. In Switzerland for example, for decades it was always possible to identify the owner of any car. You simply had to purchase a little booklet that listed car license plate numbers and their owners. No-one seemed to mind; no-one raised a fuss. But then someone developed a smartphone App that returned the same result — and an uproar ensued. The App made the public information, once obscure, much more visible. Other examples include US house purchase prices. This is public information that was not readily available. Go to zillow.com to find the price your neighbour has paid for his/her house. It’s a simple as that.

The web is rapidly making the distinction between the public and the obscure very narrow and very blurry. On the web, if it is public, it is no longer obscure.

California passed the “Eraser Bill” law. It allows minors to delete unwanted content that was posted by themselves. The law has noble intentions. But it gives false hopes. It has shortcomings: it is applicable only to minors (that is, you can’t delete unwanted photos of yourself once you’re over 17 — the time presumably when maturity settles in and you realise the folly of your youthful ways); it is applicable only to content that the minor has uploaded, not content others have uploaded of the minor (which happens very often), and it doesn’t force the publishers to delete the content, only to remove it from circulation (eg their web site). Other than these shortcomings, at the end of the day, once the content has been made available, that content has a life of its own and has replicated, been downloaded and uploaded countless times that it is impossible to get rid of. It is better to think twice before you click that upload button… For sure you can run. But you can’t hide.

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