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You Know What They Say About Good Intentions, Don’t You?


This week’s column over at eWeek is about privacy. Lately it feels like this very tech topic is going mainstream. And unfortunately, it’s going to provide us with yet anther view into the chasm between the last 20th Century and our current time. More and more, Washington, D.C. is the Old Country and the politicians working there – on both sides of the aisle and all sides of this issue – need to struggle to catch their politics up to reality.
The elements of the privacy debate have been lingering around the edges of political discourse for a while now. In his oh-so-scary scenario on how the U.S. lost the “war on terror,” Richard Clarke talks in passing about a national ID card in this month’s Atlantic. A few pages later, Jim Fallows talks about the ridiculous systems in place for airport “security” – take your shoes off! – and contrasts that to the inattention being paid to chemical plants, ports and a host of other potential targets.

The nomination of Michael Chertoff – the guy who happily rounded up Muslims as assistant U.S. Attorney – as director of Homeland Security should throw another log on the fire. So should the renewal of the Patriot Act. Talk about immigration reform – President Bush was very careful to talk about making it easier to enter and leave the country in his state of the Union speech – will raise more questions.
We’re still not at the heart of the matter but we know the issue is almost ready for primetime when there’s a TV show, however. Earlier this week I attended a screening for “No Place to Hide,” an ABC special that provided enough “1984″-style clichés to create a new drinking game. Let’s call it “Invasion of Privacy:” Do a shot when someone says “data-mining.”
The problem with the show – which I saw with Las Vegas expert Marc Cooper – was that it purported to look ahead at the advantages and pitfalls of living in a world that’s networked together by computers with lots of information, it actually looked back and talked – mostly – about the fact that lots of information is on file. The networked idea – that information can and already has – moved back and forth across several times – is pretty much ignored. The best part was how Las Vegas is a city of constant surveillance. Gee, ya think you got that fancy room ’cause you reserved early? Try again. It’s because you got a gold card and yeah, the hotel knew that before you landed at the airport.
The problem is that the less-than-tech savvy treat the information stored on computers they way they treat books, magazine or other piece of paper. As things that must be accessed in special places by special people. Theirs is a paper world. And the world of data is to them a foreign, cold place where people spy on each other without each other’s permission. It’s like 1984! It’s Kafka-esque! The whole show, in fact, started with the “small town” cliché about how Americans all used to know one another. The assumption, of course, is that you must physically see – or hear – someone to know them. That’s not true, of course. As anyone reading this site regularly knows. I may not “know” you. But you “know” me.
Looking backwards, privacy advocates talk about restricting access or putting certain kinds of information away from easy view, not realizing that that information can be easily replicated. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where thing are. Since this is a backwards view, there’s not much talk about how individuals can protect themselves with encryption, by being careful about the information they willingly release. In short, you don’t hear too many people talking knowledgeably about the current state of affairs: there’s a lot of stuff out there and it’s not that hard to get. And much of it has been gathered, cultivated, pruned, edited, checked and cross-checked to make our lives easier. Instead there’s lots of talk about stolen identification – it could happen to you! – and terrorist phone numbers that could have been found if existing information had been properly searched.
You don’t hear too many people issue the subtle warning that my buddy Danny Weitzner is trying to get across with his call for an almost completely transparent system of networks and databases that are open to all, free and not available for commercial use. It’s not the data, he argues – it’s not the paper – it’s how the data is used and manipulated.
Like those of us who have made it to the 21st Century, Weitzner understands that you can “know” someone via a network just as if you were living in the same small town. And it’s not necessarily a creepy, voyeuristic knowledge, either. His idea is a good one not just because it hides information in plain site but because it relies in a very sly way on good faith not in technology – hey, machines break – but in the humans who use, and ultimately control it. The systems in place today are impenetrable. That’s a large part of the reason they’re seen as threatening as well as – in a really weird way – so perfect. Since no one really understands how they work, how networks interact, it’s easy to assign both devious and miraculous power. The truth is far more uh, human. And while Weitzner’s is, by no means a perfect idea. It’s one suggestion toward a solution that assumes things will go wrong so they can be easily repaired and fixed.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 4:09 PM | Permalink

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