Last week, someone stole my debit card number and tried to buy skateboard equipment. That’s identity theft.
Also last week, my future employer the A.C.L.U. ran into controversy for compiling public information on its donors’ affiliations and giving histories. That’s research.
The service A.C.L.U. uses is called “Prospect Explorer.” It looks as if it just pulls together a lot of already available data (which is what ED Anthony Romero says in his initial response to the controversy), but when you’re a protector of rights in general and privacy in particular, the spirit of your practices matters nearly as much as the substance, so I’m sure there will be more about this from the A.C.L.U. and its skeptics in the coming days.
Is there a penumbra of privacy around everything we’ve done publically but facelessly?
I can’t control all the traces I leave behind. And as technology makes the global data-litter easier to sift and sort, a new category of information emerges: the ripples of my decisions and associations, details that were previously inaggregable.


You’ve really led a wonderful life, George …

Well, sure, Clarence, sure … I suppose so. But did ya have to go and FIND OUT about all of it? I mean, you people seem to know EVERYTHING! Where I used to go ice skating, what I did at my first job, even my first kiss with my wife!! For Pete’s sake, don’t you people have any shame at all!?

(Privacy might actually be an issue where George and Mr. Potter agree. Mr. Potter doesn’t want an audit. George doesn’t want anyone grabbing Zuzu’s petals.)

“Ripple data” is like the stories on reality TV that the guy’s ex-girlfriends tell the new prospects. It’s not like he owned those stories to begin with, but without the high-tech apparatus of the TV show, the information would never have made it out of the nearly-private space of his ex and her friends.
There’s an NYT mag article by Jeff Rosen this week about privacy, sex and ethics among what he calls “dating bloggers.” He says “As blogs expand, people will need to develop new social conventions to resurrect the boundaries between public and private interactions.” Jeff also quotes Lawrence Lessig, who makes the web-savvy point that such conventions establish themselves in the self-policing churn of peer-to-peer communities like blogs.
So with this new ease of profiling, new protections may be needed, or at least new rules of prudence. It’s sort of a Barabási issue about the consequences of easier, faster links between things. Makes me want to read about the history of quarantine laws, and find out when global trade became so busy that a firm set of rules were needed.

1 Comment

  1. I don’t get why this is a big deal (except maybe for the fact that it is the ACLU). Many statewide and national organization do “list enhancement.” This basically entails sharing information about shared list members with like-minded organzations. It’s not a personal information, it’s mostly about aggregating public information (such as census tract data) and knowing how many of the other lists a person is on.
    For example, many Planned Parenthood affiliates participated in the the Gill Foundation’s Democracy Project
    I’m not saying it’s not creepy, just that everyone does it.

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