Privacy and the Private Sector
By woodjr on Mar 15, 2007
How would you feel if you saw this headline on a search form? I bet the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button would take on a whole new light, for one thing.
In many ways, it's already happening. Major search engines keep records of every one of your searches. Tracing these records back to you depends on many factors: whether you've received a tracking cookie by logging into other services from that company, whether your ISP has assigned you a static IP address, whether you use a large or small ISP, and more. But the core point is this: by retaining search logs, these companies place your privacy at risk.
Google recently announced that they will be anonymizing search logs after 18-24 months. It's better than their old approach (retaining all information indefinitely). But is it good enough? Your searches in the last 18-24 months probably add up to a pretty interesting picture. It can be scary to think how accurate that picture might be. Even scarier is thinking about where its accuracy would be be an illusion.
Take the case of Thelma Arnold, for example. She is the 62-year-old widow who was identified from "anonymized" search records which AOL deliberately exposed in 2006. She's not a terrorist, a drug dealer, or a sex addict. So she shouldn't have anything to hide. Right?
As the NY Times article reports, "Her search history includes 'hand tremors,' 'nicotine effects on the body,' 'dry mouth' and 'bipolar.'" Yikes. Hope Thelma isn't looking for health insurance... Or life insurance... Or a job with a company wanting to minimize the cost of insuring employees... Or anything else where this picture of her health could be held against her.
The worst part? It isn't a picture of her health at all. It's her friends' health. As the Times article continues: "Ms. Arnold said she routinely researched medical conditions for her friends to assuage their anxieties. Explaining her queries about nicotine, for example, she said: 'I have a friend who needs to quit smoking and I want to help her do it.'"
But aren't Ms. Arnold and the foolish release of AOL's search records a special situation? No company would follow in those footsteps after seeing the grilling AOL took. Right? Maybe. But why do they leave the possibility open by retaining these logs? Could one disgruntled employee expose the logs to harm the company? Could a failing company sell off the logs as a final way to salvage assets? Could one company become so large and involved in so many different fields that the Big Brother scenarios we fear could occur entirely within its own corporate boundaries?
Or could widespread tracking and sharing of online activity data just become a standard part of business? Look no further than our all-important credit reports to see how the monitoring of our personal information can become deeply ingrained into the private sector. Is it really so far-fetched to imagine a similar system built on information culled from our online activities?
George Orwell was brilliant in highlighting the importance of privacy to everyone (not just "bad guys" with something to hide). He was brilliant in foreseeing the clash between technology and privacy. Did his one error come in choosing a villain? Maybe the government isn't the primary threat.
Maybe Big Brother will be born out of Big Business.