Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Privacy? What the f->k does that mean?

We live in an age of empowerment through information technology. Data is available at our finger tips through simple search queries, content is aggregated right to our desktop without us even having to think about it and communication over long distances has never been so easy. As consumers, we are becoming better and better informed about what choices we can make.

Yet this rollercoaster ride also takes us places we may not want to go. Information, any information, is readily available, including about ourselves. As Professor Mayer-Schönberger pointed out in his recent paper about how computers must be made to forget this situation is going to worsen. There are companies publicly saying that they wish to collect more and more data on us as individuals because it will enable them to deliver better targeted ads ( Google’s goal: to organise your daily life although Google is by no means an exceptions, each of the big search engines has similar goals ) and of course there would be certain benefits to this. I'm no fan of irrelevent advertising, don't get me wrong. It is the other uses that this mountain of data that will be gathered about each of us that it can be put to that makes me feel uncomfortable.

It isn't just the commercial world that wishes to collect data about us to infer what we like and dislike, building up pictures of who we are. The UK government seems to think that solving a crime is more important than a person's right to privacy ( 100,000 innocents on DNA database - and these are children) as police now have the right to get a DNA sample from any suspect. No doubt this will lead to more crimes being solved but a side effect of this is that if someone on the database happened to have been at a crime scene recently before a crime they will be incriminated automatically. Interestingly, Google has taken a stake in genomics info startup, expect a dna google search option in future. I can see how all of this data, put together, could be used to track the movements of people. We here in the UK are already the most watched nation in the world, we have the most CCTV coverage. Couple all of this with RFID tag tracking possibilities and for the first time it may be possible for a government to track its citizens no matter where they are, not just eroding the idea of privacy but destroying it.

The US clearly doesn't have a good record for respecting human rights ( U.S. Blasted by Amnesty on Terror ), and privacy is a human right too . The potential to misuse all of this data that governments and commercial entities will have on us as people will be very real. Put all of this together and you have a very dark view of the future, a possible dystopia outside of science fiction that could occur within the next decade.

Update - looks like Im not the only one concerned about this: E.U. Probing Google Over Privacy

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