Monday, August 14, 2006

Privacy as We Know It

Recently AOL released hundreds of thousands of search request records to the scholarly community, believing it would aid sociological research. What they found was that it caused a front-page uproar about the nature of privacy in a digital world.

If you haven't read about it, the short form goes something like this:

Even when you search anonymously, your various requests can be grouped as having come from the same machine (and in the case of AOL, where you're logged in, you're just one data cell away from being identified from the get-go). Once grouped, your searches can be narrowed down to the point where its almost certain the viewer can guess who the person is, or with minimal additional research, discover who it is.

Last week the NY Times got in touch with a woman in Maryland who had searched for information related to owning an incontinent dog. They had her identified via her searches; and she confirmed those unhappy pup searches were hers.

The news is, search isn't private. And by implication, not much else on line is, either.

The larger issue is: why does that matter so much?

We're living in the infancy of an age of infinite connectivity. We're used to doors and walls and barriers, and at least amongst those of us who remember when there was no internet, private communication.

But it looks from here like infinite connectivity is also opening up an age of infinite visibility. Everything you do on line can potentially be seen by everyone else. Privacy zealots would like to pretend we can wind the clock back, but we can't. The notion that you can have perfect access to all known information plus perfect anonymity is pure hubris. Isn't going to happen.

A newer generation seems more comfortable with this--or at least the generation that seems to care little whether they posted weird, whacky stuff about themselves on MySpace does. And maybe they are on to something. Instead of worrying about who finds out that you searched for adult diapers and duct tape in the same session, how about if society just got more tolerant over all?

Aside from the times when you find out your neighbor has searched for "bomb kit" and "jihad" and "economy class" in the same session, why should you (or for that matter, law enforcement officials) really care what they searched for?

That's a question for another post: maybe we have too many laws and need to concentrate on enforcing only those that really matter (like the one that would catch the abovementioned traveler).

The digital age has forced us all into the same digital sandbox. We are all in the sandbox toying with these new, visible selves. Get used to it. Me, I am using a pseudonym. It's a personal thing.

-- Renaissance Aug 14, 2006

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