Big Data: The Quiet, Quick Death of Privacy

note: use the embedded links its good stuff! 🙂

Last week I wrote the first of a two part blog on Big Data. I discussed the evolution of digital data, the series of initiatives that have appeared to manage data and the impact Big Data will have on our current world. Today I want to discuss another aspect of Big Data and that is information privacy.

I will start by saying I am a bit disturbed. Not by progress, because I enjoy evolving. My concerns are in the dichotomy between massive change and the blind involvement of the average human in this process. It is a common sight to see a mother driving a Lexus with a phone propped against her ear, kids pushing Facebook photos to friends, or a college student typing out a few keystrokes on twitter in the local coffee shop. We’re all active participants in massive information usage. We are also the first generation in modern history to see a permanent revocation of privacy rights. Many would say these minor losses of privacy are needed to fight terrorism or to keep up with the criminals; but I would state the changes in technology and our new found social obsessions are equal contributors to this loss of privacy.

Very few of us are considering the changes in privacy in a broad societal context. We leave most decisions to the ill prepared politicians to poke their finger in the shadows of the black box without understanding the ramifications of their actions. Or, to those who will capitalize on the opportunity. Those who will leverage this information, possibly for great or nefarious purposes. I hope you see in this article I am not here to vilify anyone or to say we need the level of privacy we have had. Instead this is a call to action for us all to think about what this all means. I’m asking you to be the “cowboy”, not the “cow”. Big Data means data everywhere; it will undoubtedly impregnate our lives for the foreseeable future.

This blog will be broken into three parts. The first part will quickly hit upon the historical rise of freedoms, the second part will focus on the current world of information collection, and finally the third part will ask the question should we care? Before diving in, I will tell you that I have no “legal chops”. This blog provides a dime store tour of some of the legality of privacy. Take it for what it’s worth.

PART ONE: A Brief History of Privacy
Today’s modern view of rights and liberties principally start in 1215 with the “Great Charter” or Magna Carta. There was little in the way of specifics defined within the big “MC” related to personal privacy, but it kicked off a vein of thought that became our current global era which has afforded more international freedoms to more people today than in any other known period of time.
From the 1200’s through the 1700’s most rights and liberties focused on the freedom of religion, incarceration, taxes, and property ownership. Virginia led the colonies in drafting the “Virginia Bill of Rights” in 1776 which later became the starter document for the federal bill of rights Using the site, I was able to understand that much of the momentum for our privacy and protection in the constitution, came from the findings associated with a handful trials like “Wilkes v. Wood” where Wilkes won a suit against the practice of issued royal warrants allowing appointed agents to ransack the designee’s homes and seize their books and papers. These warrants were issued against those who spoke ill of the King. The revolutionary war and our formative years as a country solidified our resolve for liberty and gave birth to a new foundation of human rights.

Going forward through the decades, America and England set many standards for personal freedoms. New legislature and case law grew in support of the concepts of privacy, “Invasion of Privacy” to be specific. Interesting enough technology played a big role in the development of privacy. Newspapers, cameras, and TVs allowed the common man to see what was happening in mass and to begin to influence the law makers and courts to better protect privacy. Examples include tort laws on invasion of privacy which allow you to sue against those who intrude on your properties. One of the biggest “rocks in the river” happened in 1961, the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution.

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”                  – Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution

The fourth amendment protects against unwarranted search and seizure. To me what is interesting is the fact that our deep seated concept of privacy is actually a fairly recent addition coming into its current form just before I was born.

It is important to point out that privacy law is subjective. Case in point: the term “of public interest” seems quite broad, but is a key point leveraged in the legal interpretation of “invasion of privacy”. Case point: celebrities have less privacy rights than the average American because of such interpretations.

So I hope I didn’t bore you in the review of our collective, traditional perspective of privacy rights. I’ll finish part one with some related quotes through history:

“But no part of the property of any individual can, with justice, be taken from him, or applied to public uses, without his own consent, or that of the representative body of the people.” – John Adams 1776

“If men through fear, fraud or mistake, should in terms renounce and give up any essential natural right, the eternal law of reason and the great end of society, would absolutely vacate such renunciation;” – John Adams 1772

“All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent. “ -Thomas Jefferson

“It all comes from, I would argue, this right to privacy that doesn’t exist in my opinion in the United States Constitution . . .” – Rick Santorum 2003


PART TWO: Current Events in Information Capture
One can say that up until 1990, privacy was a physical thing. A search warrant protected privacy of one’s space. You were required to have proper cause and approval to invade someone’s personal space. Today the digital world has no analog to protect your digital and physical privacy from a new wave of technologies.
In this section, let’s look at several current events that relate to the capture and use of personal information

Carrier IQ Article, Gigcom – Carrier IQ is a product that can be preloaded on your cell phone or device that can literally capture every action and designed to send that data to some collection zone. It was engineered for the cell business to create new knowledge, and arguably profit, from the data collected. Apple quit using it in iOS5. My carrier Verizon has a policy against this product, but other carriers like Sprint and AT&T have used it in some form. This article included a poll on whether respondants would change purchase behavior based on this knowledge, at the time of writing, 82% voted they would.
House Committee Bill on Data Retention Mandate, CNET – Here’s an excerpt from this article:
“Internet providers would be forced to keep logs of their customers’ activities for one year… 19 to 10 vote represents a victory for conservative Republicans, who made data retention their first major technology initiative after last fall’s elections, and the Justice Department officials who have quietly lobbied for the sweeping new requirements… rewrite of the bill expands the information that commercial Internet providers are required to store to include customers’ names, addresses, phone numbers, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, and temporarily-assigned IP addresses, some committee members suggested. By a 7-16 vote, the panel rejected an amendment that would have clarified that only IP addresses must be stored. [so the all data would be stored…] It represents “a data bank of every digital act by every American” that would “let us find out where every single American visited Web sites,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, who led Democratic opposition”
There is also an interesting “Government Snooping Timeline” in the article. Popularity can only be judged by the comments that follow the blog. They were damning…
CIA Mood Ring: Monitors Twitter and Facebook, Computerworld  – The CIA monitors up to 5 million tweets as day says Computerworld. They do this to rapidly assess the global sentiment. Feeding results to various governmental recipients like the president. The article additionally states that Homeland Security is looking at guidelines for privacy rights while it monitors social media. This is self-regulating and questionable if it would be successful.
Town Center to Monitor Christmas Shoppers w/ their Cell Phones, – These things hit close to home, my local town center “Short Pump” announced plans ( that they would track everyone that entered the town center via their cell phones and aggregate the data to determine shopping patterns. Though they did provide some news information on the web, the actual shopper would not be notified of this activity. Approximately 1 week later ( they announced they would be pulling the system out at least temporarily because of the backlash. However they imply they will be working on enhancements. I bought my presents at the competing malls this year.

Surveillance Catalog Article, WSJ – This article and video provide a laundry list of  new hacking, monitoring, and intercept technologies. Hey maybe something for under the tree?
CNN News – Just this morning I watched CNN where they talked about new surveillance companies providing police forces and other governmental agencies data collection and mining tools that take information from public wifi’s by penetrating laptops and devices on the network, even if they were password protected in some instances. Their next report was a discussion of drone planes and whether would we ever use them in American skies?
SCAN VAN – Ok… if you have survived the others without a flinch, this one has to get you a little. The company American Science and Engineering has installed and is selling backscatter vans (or x-ray vans) that can be driven up and down the road visualizing all the contents of houses and/or cars. To be clear through brick walls and through clothes while you pass on the street. Here are 2 news reports that differ in the support of such technologies as appropriate. (Young Turks, FoxNews worth watching both…). Once again we all have to decide if there is a line and where that line is.

So, hopefully you now realize that data is collected in very new ways that is without a doubt invasive by traditional views of privacy, yet it feels so right as we leverage the inter-connectiveness of our personal device world.

PART THREE: What’s an Addict to Do?
In 1949 George Orwell wrote the epic book called Nineteen Eighty Four about a society ruled by an authoritarian group called “the Party”. The people were constantly watched with little to no freedoms, they are surrounded by pervasive surveillance, they were subjected to mind control, and they were perpetually in a state of war. With constant devices and 24×7 news, sometimes I feel like I am on mind control…

Whether you’re ready to grab an aluminum hat or if you’re an “out of sight out of mind” type, I hope you see the acute changes that technology has brought upon our actual privacy and thus our rights. The question is what do you do about it? Do you shut off your phone? Put down the iPad? Write your congressman? Write a blog? Change your shopping patterns? Start a new data mining company? The answer is to take action, whichever you see fit.

As a society we need to step up our societal skills. There is lots of “whitespace” to be defined today and most of us are too busy with kids, soccer games, quarterly reports, and the daily DOW to focus in on these issues. If Thomas Jefferson or George Mason had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have the America we have today. Our founding fathers were consistent in their concern in the fragility of our democracy and our freedoms. They were extremely worried we would become complacent and apathetic to our luxuries. They were right. Form an opinion and share it. Maybe privacy is overrated… Maybe privacy and freedom are loosely correlated and do not represent a causal relationship. These are the things we should be discussing. Let’s formally and proactively reach that conclusion if so.

Big Data is coming and it is a positive force and will better our lives and our economy. Yet, I don’t want others defining my future while I’m watching a hulu clip.

The opinions written of this blog are solely my own and not those of my associations.