Friday, October 16, 2009

privacy, the internet, and asymmetric warfare

A recent paper on Broken Promises of Privacy: Responding to the Surprising Failure of Anonymization, by
Paul Ohm (colorado school of law...)
and a recent report on net legislationby the All Party Parliamentary Communications Group of the UK government, both conclude that there are interesting times ahead when it comes to personal privacy, and both seem to say that "database state" and "database capitalism" are bad ideas. Essentially, the ability to do "joins" on unrelated databases, whether they are anonymized well or not, allows accurate pinpointing on individuals to a very very fine level of detail.

Solutions invlve
1) only gathering data for fit purpose for specific use by specific users and anonymizing it
and (AND, not or)
2) strictly controlling the flow of such data in any way, means or form.
3/ deleting it for ever when you are done (forgetting things is not an evolutionary error - it is a vital part of staying sane for individuals and probably should be wired into the networked society too - c.f. losing freinds on facebook in a friendly way!)

The problem is that Brin's proposal (we all watch each other, so we lose privacy, but so do the watchers), doesn't work when you have assymetric power (large organisation v. small individual), whereas controlling the flow of data might just work if it is legislated and penalties are good. Note that this does not stop useful things like evidence based medicine, because we have shared goals - but it does stop the use of correlation (think, signal processing, minimum entropy information theory etc) between completely unrelated databases.

For me, this makes a lot of sense human behavioural terms. We all present ourselves differently to different people at different times (we "lie" all the time) - this is essential for society to work well - unifying all views flies in the face of good social flexibility - so the government and the advertisers wet dream of combining information about belief, health, education, employment, finance, for every individual is completely and utterly misguided and actually extremely dangerous.

We already have a stressed out society because of speed of change (c.f. John Brunner's excellent shockwave rider). Complete transparency would be (as has also been speculated in various Sci Fi books) like reading everyones mind all the time - we'd hate everyone. it would be a disaster. I doubt we'd survive in fact.

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misery me, there is a floccipaucinihilipilification (*) of chronsynclastic infundibuli in these parts and I must therefore refer you to frank zappa instead, and go home