Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
Why the Pro-Privacy Movement Isn’t Working: Data-Mining as Entertainment

There is something about privacy that we all understand in an intimate way and yet seem unable to apply broadly. What is it about our conceptions of privacy that can make an individual angry when a companion reads a diary and yet allows that same individual to make a wealth of information available on the internet? Is there a difference, in kind, between the two forums such that a post online is ‘supposed’ to be read while a diary is not? It is hard to imagine a substantive difference between revealing online activity and a diary.

Or can it be that we view each post as a small slice of a puzzle that we don’t mind sharing so we dole ourselves out a tweet, post, or thought at a time not fully aware that the trail we leave can be put together to tell a story of ourselves that is amazingly accurate. In this paper, from a former class, a student spoke of urbanization as a cause of changed attitude towards these issues. In the piece, and the discussion that follows, students argued that we do not give ourselves away when we buy items from different locations in a city or in our conversations with strangers or when we engage in passionate loud conversations with loved ones that are overheard in snippets. As one student comments ‘our souls’ do not live in those moments.

That paper and those comments as well as a conversation with a friend who has an active face book page, g chats constantly, and, like we all do, uses the web to search and entertain and yet was upset about a companion reading a diary made me think that what those unconcerned about privacy fail to understand is the aggregation of information is what’s frightening. The thing that seemed to upset her the most was that ‘everything about (her) from when (she) was 14’ was in that diary. In that bounded space, it was clear what that invasion of privacy had cost her. In the unwieldy way that we live life in a city it is unclear how we lose ourselves, as students noted. (Indeed, I am not sure we lose ourselves at all as those moments are not often ‘connected’).

And maybe that’s the key to progressing the ‘pro-privacy’ movement. To show that things can be ‘connected’ rather easily online. That unwieldy way information is scattered in our urban existence can be welded together in our online existence. We are all aware that our movements online are not a secret but what many may not be aware of (or are unable to comprehend) is that those movements can be put together in a way that exposes one as clearly as a diary kept from the age fourteen can expose someone. What needs to be shown is not a breach of a site but rather a breach of an identity. Like the diary, maybe we need to bound all the ‘private’ online moments, and package it not to retailers to sell things to us but to consumers so that the may buy the idea that their privacy is being severely impaired.

Imagine an online game, maybe a face book or iphone app that presents a comprehensive data mining ‘diary’ of your friends that you are to guess to whom that ‘diary’ belongs. When you guess correctly, the information along with a message gets sent to the friend whom you correctly identified. Maybe something to the effect, “Congratulations, Your Friend Really Knows You…Now”. Or, possibly create an alternate face book page comprised of information created through data mining, which only the user can see.

These methods of exposure cross ethical and legal lines that should not be traversed but it is my belief that without being exposed to the fact that while ‘our souls’ may not exist in each email, text, twitter, status update and blog post they (our souls) do exist in the internet waiting to be connected by someone either trying to sell us something or by someone with a more malicious intent. It seems to be that while twitter accounts and face book pages may be hacked, identities have not been. We have not been exposed to the ‘internet us’ or vice versa.

Once this happens, it is my belief (read: hope) that the ‘pro-privacy’ folks will have an opportunity to present an alternative product; whether a statutory, constitutional or technological change. Until then, the convenience of the mediums (face book etc) and the medium (the internet) as is will outweigh the abstract threat there is someone that can put together my Gmail, face book, twitter, and blog posts to create the (in)complete me. In other words, it’s the aggregation that’s frightening and the aggregations that needs to be shown to create an environment that can push users to another conception of internet uses (whether it be Eben’s home servers) or another conception of the ways the internet cannot be used (limited through statutes) or another conception of the internet’s place in the Constitution (to 5 justices on the Supreme Court).

-- BetreGizaw - 03 May 2010

Right, it seems to me, about the heuristic difficulty for most people. But you can't show them what other people know about them, because other people keep that information secret from those who don't pay for it, and they sell it in bulk in all the markets where the transactions are visible at all. Technical and legal obstacles lie in the way of making the argument in the form you think would be most effective; your analysis of those difficulties, and suggestions about how to surmount them, would be very useful.

Betre,

Your essay is interesting. First, I agree that what we need is to try and reveal the danger of online data in a way that gets attention. I tried to do that in a paper I wrote last semester, to perhaps limited effect. I think your idea of a Facebook application is intriguing; of course, the danger is that how do you create something to reveal the danger of data mining without that very tool/app becoming dangerous itself (since it would have to do some mining itself to be effective)? You seem to recognize that danger in saying "These methods of exposure cross ethical and legal lines that should not be traversed ..."

I am optimistic, however, that we can find a way to communicate the dangers without such a dangerous tool.

-- BrianS - 04 May 2010

Hey Betre,

I enjoyed your reading. My comment deals with the matter from a more general perspective: the issue of profiling to built up a comprehensive image of the user touches upon how his realization of his interests in anonymity will be diminished by a profiling / data mining operation. Indeed, the amount of privacy a person enjoys vis--vis another person or organization is partly a function of the degree to which the latter is able to draw together data on disparate aspects of his activities. It follows that, the more such data are able to be drawn together, the more comprehensive is the profile that can be validly inferred for the data and the less privacy is enjoyed by the data subject. This diminishing of privacy without the consent of the subject is detrimental to his legitimate interest in informational self-determination, but also may pose further threats on a macro-social level for a pluralist and democratic society.

Still, should we apply privacy protection principles such as the purpose limitation principle, the principle of data minimization and proportionality require, then every potential profiler should limit himself in collecting an amount of personal data wich limited to what is necessary to achieve the purpose for which the data are gathered and processed. This would most probably have an impact on the efficacy of profiling / data mining techniques by restricting the amount of information upon which profiles can be generated.

What I mean to say here is that for any legitimate data-mining activity performed out there (and by legitimate I would qualify any processing of personal data done with the subject's consent), the amount of information that is allowed to be gathered is (should be) the absolute minimum, which, in turn, jeopardizes the efficiency of the data mining operation for which the data was collected in the first place.

-- NikolaosVolanis - 11 May 2010

 

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