Op-Ed at Guardian (UK): We’ve handed our personal database to internet companies with hardly any questions asked
In an opinion piece in the Guardian, reporter Aditya Chakrabortty discusses the issue of privacy in a networked world.
Your digital life can be split into two parts: content and data. You know plenty about the content: that oh-so-hilarious tweet you punched out after closing time, or those delicious pictures of the new baby posted on Flickr especially for your aunt in Australia. You create this stuff, and much of the privacy argument has been over whether strangers or ex-girlfriends or even your parents should be allowed to see it without your express permission. Yet all that is a handful of dust compared to the cascades of data about yourself that you shed daily.
What sort of information? Ian Brown of the Oxford Internet Institute has a little riff: “You wake up and check your email, which means the internet service provider now has fresh records on you. While walking to the train, you’re caught by CCTV. You swipe your Oyster, which has Radio Frequency Identification technology and records your movements. Get into work and do some searching on the internet, giving Google more data to go on. Buy some lunch and you hand over a Nectar card which logs all your purchases . . .”
You get the drift. This used to be the stuff of dystopian fantasy for privacy campaigners, but then came Facebook and YouTube (both only six years old) and all the others – and the issues they raised proved to be just as distracting for the Big-Brother watchers as for the rest of us. Couple that with the worries over government ID cards and the NHS IT system, and the concerns over private-sector data collection got shelved. […]
Go to google.org/flutrends and you’ll see one result: by collating searches with certain keywords Google is better able to predict flu outbreaks than the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta. Similarly, Twitter is fast becoming an excellent guide to traffic disruption as users report jams.
No one would deny those are useful services. But the point is that we have handed over intimate information – in clicks and search terms and hours of browsing – about ourselves with barely any questions asked. And it puts all those debates about oversharing information with your friends in the shade. Would we feel as comfortable if Google started an adultery-spotting service, or Twitter published a guide to BNP activity?