Monday, November 10, 2008

Big Brother

Last night I was watching CNBC's Big Brother, Big Business and I have to admit... this is scary shit.

Everyone knows that the information boom has made more and more of our personal information available to anyone who has the know-how or the money to access it. Before watching this show I had a vague awareness that companies can track my spending habits based on credit card purchases and compile it to learn about buying habits of particular groups of people. I also had some understanding of the problems with privacy in the electronic age. But what I did not know is how much information there really is available about me, specifically.

A company called Acxiom for example collects HUGE amounts of information on individuals and keeps it all together in personal files on private citizens. Looking up a person’s personal file will give you info on everywhere they’ve lived, who they’ve lived with, what property they’ve owned, where they shop, what professional accreditations they have, what their criminal record looks like, and on and on and on. This information is not available to private citizens, but mostly to corporations like Sears and other retailers to help them direct advertising dollars where it will have the biggest impact, and I do understand the value of that. But, the fact that there are private companies that have huge amounts of information compiled about private citizens and that we have no say about what is in the files or how it is used is very scary. Not to mention the unfairness that someone is making money off of selling my personal information to others w/out permission or notifying me.

This becomes a big problem when you get to law enforcement and the Fourth Amendment. Based on the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the 4th amendment, as long as the information acquired by law enforcement officials is coming from the hands of a third party, that information receives no Fourth Amendment protection. This becomes a problem with private companies like Acxiom have huge files on people and all the government (who is a customer of Acxiom) needs to do is purchase the files from Acxiom to circumvent the Fourth Amendment requirement for a search warrant.

This puts me, a private citizen, in a position where I have a reasonable expectation of privacy for the information in that file (not all of it, but a lot of it), and I cannot control or even access my own file at Acxiom, but the government can access it if they want to without violating my Fourth Amendment right. I don’t think this is what the founding fathers intended when they wrote the Bill of Rights.

The problem is that the laws certainly have not caught up with the technology. Another grey area is online accounts. For example, it is illegal for someone to open my mailbox, take out my phone bill, and look at it. But it is currently not illegal for them to go online, pretend to be me, generate an online account in my name, and look at my phone bills over the internet. Anyone who knows some personal information about you and has moderate internet knowledge can do these types of things without real ramifications.

A lot of people may think that as long as you have nothing to hide, this isn’t a problem. But I think that we should all be worried this. Just thinking about how much of your personal information can easily become public knowledge is pretty creepy. There is a real possibility that this information could fall into the wrong hands, not just the government, but anyone from thieves and hackers to people with personal vendettas against you. It is becoming increasingly easy for us to be spied on. Just the fact that people are watching our every move and that it is possible for private companies to compile VERY detailed and accurate portraits on virtually every citizen is very unnerving.

Even Google is a scary thing. I use Google for everything. I have a Google email address, Google homepage, and Google Blog and about 99.99% of all internet searches I do are through Google. Because of that I was felt than a little uneasy when I discovered that Google saves EVERY search done on its search engine! And it is very often possible to link searches to the particular person who made them. Think about it for a minute, a detailed list of every Google search that you have made is like an insight into your brain. Google is so common it has become a verb! I Google practically everything that pops into my head and I now know that there is a record of all of my searches that can pretty easily be linked back to me.

And its not just Google, the company that is scary, but what you can find on Google. According to one person interviewed on CNBC, a lot of the information that you can find online is available becuase companies or government agencies inadvertantly post it on the internet. Just doing some basic Google searches he found someone's full credit report and spread sheets of people's personal information.

And if you didn’t think that the information age was scary enough, maybe you should take a look at a company called VeriChip. This company makes a small RFID tag that is implanted under the skin in the arm or hand and gives off radio frequencies to positively identify people. And at least one company has already required some employees to get these implants to access secure areas in the workplace. And the people interviewed at the company don't see any problem with it! (um can you say slippery slope!)

Forget about the universal ID, that is child’s play! The technology is here today to implant people with all of our information (and these things can even be synched with credit card accounts… just swipe your arm over the checkout and you’re good to go!) Of course it is easy to say now that if the government ever tried to implement this, it would be met with fierce resistance… (and I’m sure it will be) but just knowing that this technology exists can lead one to think that it may not be as far fetched as we assume. All we need is for people to become comfortable with doing this by choice and it may only be a matter of time before the government requires it.

Whew…. Well I’m just exhausted thinking about all of this, so I’m going to finish with my conspiracy theorizing now… but this shit is scary. Think (Orewll's 1984 or Sandra Bullock's The Net) For now, I will go on choosing to ignore it most of the time because thinking about it can be too disturbing, but at least its on record that I am scared!

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