The concepts of “privacy” like many other things has changed in the modern Internet age. As in the past, “privacy” was comprised of coveting ones unique information, be it medical, financial or other. However in today’s world this has changed as nothing is individualized or unique any longer now that we are in the digital age. As in the past, when we lived in a paper world, duplication, storage and the retrieval of information was an expensive proposition. However in the digital world, information can be replicated at the speed of light and retrieval? Well we all know the speed at which Google can return a complex search against a global database for only the cost of showing us a few ad words.
What does all of this mean for us? Well first off the fallacy of “privacy” is gone and “fallacy” it was as mentioned above only the costs involved hindered or limited data access in the past. So in short we really never had “privacy”, it’s just that the data cost so much, many weren’t willing to pay for it. However as the cost inevitably declined (at viral rates), more and more information became available as part of the natural course of (information) evolution.
To further my point, the year is 1982 and I am doing some freelance hardware repair work for an interesting company who shall remain nameless (a Google Search just showed they are still in business which surprised me). Anyway their public profile was that of a “marketing company”. However after I finished my task, I was asked by the gentleman for whom I was working for if I wanted to see what they “really” did and of course my answer was a bright-eyed “yes”!
Now keep in mind this is 1982 and morality clauses where still a standard part of most franchise agreements. For those youngsters out there, this meant if you did something which was not “moral” like cheat on your wife or hire a prostitute, do drugs, etc your contract could and would be withdrawn. To demonstrate, “Bob” (not his real name) and I sat down front of a green screen (hey it was 1982) and there were several very large Prime Computers behind us in a glass enclosed room whirling away.
Bob typed in a few commands and up came a purchase made at major retail chain in Kalamazoo (Michigan), and after a few key strokes we also saw that it was paid by check and the check was signed as Mrs. X. My comment was “so she bought some toilet paper or something”. Bob replied with “wait” and his fingers went to work and pointed to the screen and explained, you see on the same day Mrs. X bought her toilet paper in Kalamazoo, Mr. X was checking into a hotel in Traverse City. Being young and naive at the time, the word “So” slipped out of my lips, however Bob was quick to say “now let’s log into the hotels system”. What “the hotel’s systems I said”, yeah replied Bob the hotel’s system “we buy access to their computers” and there it was.
Mr. & Mrs. X were registered as double occupancy to a room with a king sized bed at about same time as the retail purchase. Well even I got the picture then, Mr. X was two timing Mrs. X and the company was looking to pull the trigger on Mr. X’s contract. The short story here is Acme Inc (not the real name) purchased rights to buy large databases and then loaded them on their systems. They then wrote software to join the pieces together based upon common factors and bam; here it was in green & black looking back at me on the screen.
The point behind this story you ask? Simple as I’ve already shared, you’ve never had it (privacy), it’s only been a matter of how much someone was willing to pay to get your information. This is one of the reasons back in 1999 when Scott McNealy was quoted as saying “You have zero privacy anyway” and “get Over it”, he got a big thumbs up from me. Not because I am anti-privacy, no it’s because I am a realist and from the story above had a firsthand understanding about the topic which the naive public continually sticks its head in a hole about.
Today one with basic knowledge of how the “world fits together” can gain all the information they want. For example, I can log into my county’s web site and find out the mortgage on any one of my neighbors home’s and they can do the same as its all “public” information. You would be surprised to (in the US anyway) how much public information there is and just becomes a matter of stringing this data together which there are firms who even sell this as a service!
What to do in this post 1984 apocalyptic age of the sporty tin-foil cap? Simple, first rule is accountability, if there is something you’re doing which might embarrass or worse incriminate you, don’t. It’s that easy, because you know all those porn sites you Google-ed? They still have a record of them and they can be worked back to you via IP address, cookies you name it. The world is a small place and with data wanting to be free it makes it all the smaller.
What about something like “medical information”, here is an interesting topic as keep one thing in mind. Many times (at least in the US) having information is not illegal, however what one does with that information is. So first and foremost, understand what is out there about you and make sure it is accurate. Since “data” about you will be out there and you will not stop it, make sure it’s correct. For example a doctor’s office may see you for diabetic screening and if the “coder” decides to take the easy path and assigns the diabetic code to you, guess what you now are diabetic in the worlds eyes of information and you don’t even know as the test was negative!
As a side bar: information always “follows” the money, as in the scenario above, it’s not the results of test which become the dominant information factor. It will be the billing codes as they are the data elements which are attached to the money (paid from the insurance company).
Second understand your “rights”, to know when data is used or applied in an inappropriate manner. Information itself is not evil its only how man decides to use it, which is.
Third and most importantly, understand life isn’t fair and I am not saying this to be “cool” or one-up someone cliché wise. Its back to being a realist and I’ve lived at the butt of life for almost 50 years now and have been the recipient of many “I am sorry Butt’s”…