Friday, January 19, 2007

Privacy Piracy

Data Mining is a huge business these days. It is getting to be so prevalent that we are being asked to provide all kinds of information almost on a daily basis. Sometimes our information is provided to others without us really being made aware.

Data mining is happening to you as you shop, when you pay your bills, and when you search for information on-line. Sometimes its for a good purpose and is beneficial to us; like when credit card issuers use data-mining to look for patterns of suspicious or unusual activity regarding your credit card use. That can indicate that your card has been stolen. Other times data mining can be a bit more suspicious in nature, and still other times it is down right annoying and intrusive. Using EZ Pass on the highway lets others know where you go and when. Shopper cards tell others what you buy and how often. Your health insurer knows how much medication you buy, and somebody surely knows what magazines you subscribe to.

Lots of bits of information about you is collected and other people make it their job to put all the pieces together to construct a profile. I guess we can say "so what"... but there is a sense of privacy and anonymity that is being lost. If I think about it long enough it does creep me out a bit. It seems so Orwellian. I guess we are supposed to just become immune to it and accept it as an unsavory result of technology, just like we are supposed to become de-sensitized to the camera surveillance that seems to be around in most public places. We are a generation that is being tracked and monitored in many ways, and it is not supposed to bother us.

We ought to be outraged that psycho-social information is being collected from our kids in school,oft times without parental knowledge. That information is being used in very questionable ways, and we ought to be asking the question: What is being done with this information? Parents should be made aware of programs like the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), which was first developed in 1990 by the Center for Disease Control. It's a prime example of government data mining.

Last year an article, "US Plans Massive Data Sweep", was put out by the Christian Science Monitor, which outlined some pretty unsettling information about a little known system dubbed "ADVISE". Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight, and Semantic Enhancement (ADVISE) is only mentioned by a few public documents. ADVISE is a research and development program within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and is part of its three-year-old "Threat and Vulnerability, Testing and Assessment" portfolio. The TVTA received nearly $50 million in federal funding last year.

A major part of ADVISE involves data-mining - or "dataveillance," as some call it. It means sifting through data to look for patterns. here's what the CS Monitor reported:
What sets ADVISE apart is its scope. It would collect a vast array of corporate and public online information - from financial records to CNN news stories - and cross-reference it against US intelligence and law-enforcement records. The system would then store it as "entities" - linked data about people, places, things, organizations, and events, according to a report summarizing a 2004 DHS conference in Alexandria, Va. The storage requirements alone are huge - enough to retain information about 1 quadrillion entities, the report estimated. If each entity were a penny, they would collectively form a cube a half-mile high - roughly double the height of the Empire State Building.
Privacy laws have placed restrictions on government use of private data - such as medical records, but they don't prevent intelligence agencies from obtaining information by buying it from commercial data collectors.

I am glad to know that some Congressmen are awake. This appeared in one recent article in the Washington Times:
Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat said: "The possibility of unchecked, secret use of data-mining technology threatens one of the most important values that we are fighting for in the war against terrorism -- freedom."
Former Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican who recently became an activist for the Libertarian Party, told the panel that data mining poses a "serious threat" to the First, Second, Fourth and Fifth amendments to the Constitution.
"That is nearly half of the Bill of Rights," he said.
Talk about Big Brother watching! Now I am all for "catching the terrorists", but I am not so keen on getting Average Joe Citizen caught up in the dragnet. This also has HUGE implication regarding privacy issues. With all the uproar about identity theft and misuse of information, one always should consider what happens to the information that is being collected. Who uses it? Is it being stored and protected? How can I change it if it is incorrect? Shouldn't we be in charge of our own personal data?

I know that I am more careful now about giving out any of my personal information to anyone, but I am also concerned about the information people are collecting about me that I may not be aware of. Don't get me wrong, I am not paranoid.. but I am aware of data mining and how we are as a society becoming so nonchalant and accepting of various forms of personal monitoring and surveillance. So next time your in some store's parking lot, give a wave to the camera above and say "cheese".

Just for Fun:
Rockwell Music Video: Somebody's Watching Me ... Lyrics