More thoughts on Privacy

While it some times shocks me that people pay so little attention to the privacy issues that are quickly overtaking us, I also realize that it’s no one’s fault.  It can be hard to see the imminent harm if you’re not spending time reading and understanding what’s happening with information about you.  We all have busy lives and the issues here frequently require more than a five minute primer to appreciate.  Who has the time?  More importantly, who cares if you’ve done nothing wrong or have nothing to be ashamed of?  Heck, if you are careful about what you say, the views and pictures you share, and appropriately set your various privacy settings online, what’s their to worry about?  There’s also of course, the fact that “so what if marketers know information about me to try sell me stuff”?  Few among us can point to anything having gone wrong with our online identities so what’s there really to worry about?

These questions reflect the refrains that are most frequently used around privacy issues, but are unfortunately narrow in their perspectives.

I suspect that most people lock the doors to their homes.  Not everyone does, but many people do.  Why is that?  Well, one might say it’s more of a security issue, protecting one’s home against burglars.  Another reason might include not wanting to have neighbors barge in unannounced, hence making it a bit more of a privacy issue.  The reality however is that most people know very few people that have had their homes involved in a burglary (whether they’ve been home or not), and it’s infrequent for neighbors these days to stop by unannounced.  And yet, we still lock our doors.  Yes, privacy and security remain important and we want some control over them.  You never know when crime will strike at your home so better safe than sorry, right?

When meeting someone for the first time, whether in a social or professional environment, if you were asked for your home address and social security number, it’s not likely that in most circumstances you would share this information.  Heck, some times we’re even nervous about giving our full names.  Why?  Well, for one thing, meeting someone for the first time doesn’t give you enough information to assess how they might use that information.  It’s a trust thing.  It’s also a privacy and security thing.  I wouldn’t want this new acquaintance knowing where I live, nor would I see any reason why they should have my social security number other than for nefarious uses.  As for my name, there’s some practical obscurity around the fact that if I didn’t provide much else then they might still have a difficult time finding me (*if* I didn’t want to be found by that person).

OK, now let’s explore three different type of scenarios.  In the first one, let’s say you had a perfect credit record to date and applied for home loan.  After a few days the bank came back to you and said that they declined your loan but offered no real reason for doing so other than you didn’t fit their risk profile.  You weren’t part of a minority group and you’ve never been arrested, so what else could possibly be at issue here?  Could it be that people who visit the same types of Web sites you do tend to default on their home loans more frequently?  

In the second scenario, imagine your health insurance plan raising your rates (oh yeah, that would be a surprise ;).  What if it turns out that the health insurance provider has been buying data about their customers’ transactions and correlating these with local loyalty programs data for “marketing” purposes?  Further, what if as part of their analysis they also realized that based on the foods you buy (mmm, chocolate) you fall into a high-risk group for health issues in the next few of years of your life.  This example could also work at a higher aggregated level, in other words people in your zip code tend to be less healthy than those in a neighboring zip code, but who knew?  More importantly, who would tell you or how would you find out about these practices?

In the third scenario, you are interviewing for a job and share everything you think is relevant with the prospective employer.  But do you know if that’s all *they* find relevant?  Well you can go here to see all of the services that offer credit report and other forms of screening for prospective employees.  There’s some efforts to curb the allowed uses for reviewing job seekers’ credit reports, but with the amount of new data becoming available about people, credit reports may not be necessary to effectively allow prospective employers to dig into your life as they determine to be relevant.

One more example of yet a different sort.  Imagine you have been able to successfully keep yourself from joining any social networks despite the behest of many of your friends and a general social pressure around doing so.  But, you remain a social person with friends and neighbors and have been known to enjoy going to a BBQ or two.  On several occasions, as people are apt to do these days, pictures are taken and you appear in several.  No more than pictures of you at these BBQs.  However, your friends tag you even though you’re not on the social network, which means you never find out that your picture is up online.  Now, because you’ve been tagged in a section designated for people’s names the service knows you’re a person and that you’re related in some way to the other people that appear in the pics.  Given how much the service knows about the other people in the pics, how hard do you think it would be to determine who you are based on looking you up in one of several people search engines or using services like Rapleaf, Lexis-Nexis, Experian, et. al.?  Because of the information that is available about the other people around you, several assumptions can begin to take place.  Perhaps simply looking for people with your name in the same city and state as the others.  In other words, privacy isn’t just an issue that affects those who are online, the ability to now collect, store, combine and disseminate data so easily is proving a good way to capture every one into these databases whether they have chosen to participate in the open sharing of their information or not.

These examples point to the crux of some of our privacy problems.  It’s the high level of trust that many companies are putting in technologies like network analysis, collaborative filtering and behavioral analysis.  An interesting piece in The Economist talks about how some of these technologies are being put to use.  What’s challenging to deal with however, is that statistics don’t account for the original purpose that each data set was collected to serve, and where they try to remain devoid of the original context of the data collected, they miss obvious mistakes.  In the context of ad targeting, it doesn’t really matter if the wrong soap was advertised to me, but in the context of areas that are much more meaningful to our lives, things like home ownership, health concerns, safety and security, these technologies do not yet have the necessary throttles and easy ways for user intervention in order that we may keep their results in check.  Too much faith is being put into the hands of these technologies without consideration for the human impact.

Equally important however is the lack of transparency around all of these uses.  Today’s privacy regulations don’t enable individuals to understand the extent to which data about them is sent to other services, or how their existing services are using data from other sources in making decisions that will affect them.  Some of these effects will be financial, others will in the sorts of opportunities made available to them.

My goal here is not to sound conspiratorial as I don’t believe a conspiracy is going on.  What I believe is that lots of people are doing their jobs, but due to a lack of coordination and balancing between the interests of users and the interests of organizations, we’re headed for a collision course that most people are not prepared for.  A rude awakening of sorts.  When I think of the person at the bank who decides to explore the correlations between Web viewing habits and loan defaulting dead beats, I believe that person is doing their job.  They are trying to reduce the risk for their employer.  They are thinking “out of the box” in terms of what other possible signals they could use to increase the likelihood that the bank gets back the money it loans out.  Same with the analyst at the insurance company that begins to dabble with transactional and loyalty program data.  In both cases, these folks are dealing with esoteric statistics and data clustering problems, but the impact that this information has on us is significant and we need to bring about the same sort of transparency that is being demanded of our lives, to the organizations and the processes they use to analyze information about us.

Clearly, all this gets even more unnerving when we hear of government making use of similar commercial data sources and technologies in trying to predict who among us is an “evil doer”.  OK, that’s enough for this episode.  Hope to share a little bit about how we got to this point and why things have changed so much.  As well, I see common thread between privacy, security, intellectual property issues and organizational transparency that is being enabled by the fact that so much is turning into easily copiable and transportable bits of information, which I also want to explore further.

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