James O'Neill's Blog

May 30, 2007

Privacy again

Filed under: Privacy — jamesone111 @ 10:57 am

I’ve managed to get a lot of my concerns about privacy down to a simple statement. “Databases of everything” worry me. Where we’ve been, what we’ve bought, who we’ve associated with. I alluded to a conversation I was in last week where we talked about the information that could be gathered by Live ID –  during that conversation someone made the observation that people stop worrying about privacy when they see utility.  Even with my paranoia I’m fairly happy for Amazon to tell me things I might like, because the know what I’ve bought in the past. I haven’t bought many things – and some gifts I’ve bought lead to odd recommendations. But I don’t use a supermarket loyalty card because (or even use the same credit/debit card each time I shop) because that’s somehow the wrong side of the line.

I thought there might a place where everyone would draw the line… ?  For example implanting RFID into people is pure sci-fi, right ? Wrong: I thought when I read that doctors were talking doing just that to track patients with Alzheimer’s – the technology comes from Verichip makers of “VeriGuard™ “the first radio frequency identification (RFID) security solution to combine access control [with] VeriChip’s patented, human-implantable RFID microchip. “  

The BBC has previously reported on surveillance uses of RFID tags and last Friday they reported how RFID can be used in combination with Wifi : 
Angelo Lamme, from Motorola, said tracking students on a campus could help during a fire or an emergency. “You would know where your people are at any given moment,” he said. ‘ 
Yes. You’d know where they are every moment of every day – a classic “database of everything”.  1.8 Million people signed the Downing Street Petition against tracking every vehicle movement for road-pricing – clearly this didn’t offer enough utility to offset the loss of privacy. But the Motorola representative thinks Emergency protection does.

As I said, we were chatting informally about the Utility/Privacy trade-off and was it acceptable for Windows Live to be a database of everything ? Around the same time, Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt was telling to the press he has grander ambitions in that direction.. To quote the FT he said

Gathering more personal data was a key way for Google to expand and the company believes that is the logical extension of its stated mission to organize the world’s information. Asked how Google might look in five years’ time, Mr Schmidt said: “We are very early in the total information we have within Google. The algorithms will get better and we will get better at personalization. “The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask the question such as ‘What shall I do tomorrow?’ and ‘What job shall I take?’ ” 

Worrying for privacy or great utility ? The next day a piece by Mark Lawson in the Guardian was introduced with the words “Anyone stupid enough to do a computer’s bidding is not losing civil liberties so much as their marbles” Over at ZDnet Andrew Keen really had a swing at Eric. He calls him “the Chauncey Gardiner of Silicon Valley” (twice) and “Google’s Chief Eccentric Officer” (also twice) ouch. “Eric” he says “I thought you were a businessman rather than a looney”. I remember Eric’s time in charge of Novell, so I’ve got a view on which he is. Andrew’s colleague on ZDNet, Donna Bogatin – who posted a summary of my post on Google’s stance on T-shirts – calls him “Harmless” with links to explanatory posts.

Plainly I’m not the only one worrying about databases of everything. It doesn’t matter who it is. What I wonder, and would love your comments on, is just what privacy will people give up for utility ?

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This post originally appeared on my technet blog.

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