Monday, June 26, 2006

Privacy conflicts

I think we're about to enter a time of accelerated privacy concerns. No, not accentuated, accelerated. Challenges appearing at greater and greater frequency. It's a conundrum, really.

See, there are a lot of really neat and nifty things that can be done if we know who you are. By the same token, Heinlein said it best: "Freedom begins when you tell Mrs. Grundy to go fly a kite."

Let's take the public library as an example.

A perfect library (in many ways) would know every patron. We'd get books in your fields of interest, and call you when they've arrived. When you stopped by the desk we'd let you know of new books in which you might also be interested - and perhaps some old favorites. We'd know you were in high school (for example) and the classes you're taking, so we'd reserve the various copies of Tom Sawyer for your reading assignment - no need to scramble, here it is thank you very much. We'd pay attention to how often you came and how many books you borrowed (or videos or audiotapes) and try to ensure that your limits met your typical uses.

But what my staff knows, others can find out. There are laws that protect all the above - your reading habits, your phone numbers, etc. But it's accessible to law enforcement if they bring a subpoena or a warrant. It's open to hacking. It's open to all the staff, who are human and prone to human errors and failings. It is, in other words, potentially available for abuse. And now Mrs. Grundy knows that you like reading "trash", or perhaps it's "just" books on something other than Christianity even though you live in the heart of the bible belt.

Now for a lot of people, the thought of this for libraries brings a yawn and wondering "why bother". But it turns out these issues are cutting edge.

There's a supermarket out west getting ready to allow purchases with fingerprint and pin. No need to carry cash and card that might be stolen. No real chance of someone else using your card before you get it reported. And joy of joys, they're supposed to begin tailoring advertising to you based on what you bought. There are some clothing stores (among others) that have made quite a business of this "personal awareness." But the followon question is with whom is it being shared? And how easily is it shared?

Remember the "do not call" lists? If you've done business with a company, it and its affiliates are exempt from the restrictions. If they're sharing phone numbers, bet they're sharing everything else?

And yet... getting stuff that fits you - physically and psychologically - is so darn convenient and makes life SO much easier. It's so nice when my credit card company sees I've purchased a sailboat and knows I've NEVER bought such (or related) before, so puts on a hold and calls to confirm the purchase.

We're going to have a lot of fun and frustration with the privacy puzzle, and in the meantime the conflicts are going to be more frequent and more severe. It's probably going to be one of the big issues of the upcoming decade. It and water.


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