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Digital Privacy Concerns

I’ve discussed the risk of losing your job because of blogging previously. Recently though there was a case of summary dismissal by Facebook of a young British woman who debased her employer’s good character via her Wall has gained several column inches in the popular press.

And, of course, we have all heard about the accommodation agent in the US is suing a twitter user for 140 characters of allegedly valid venom about the quality of their rental accommodation, despite the account having just 20 followers. She’ll be down $50,000 if she loses the case.

Regardless of how you feel about bosses, corporations and realtors, the point to remember is that posting on the web is not like gossiping in a pub. What you say on the web is cached, scraped, preserved essentially for all time and for anyone to see. You would have to be rather unfortunate to be caught on video slandering your boss over a pint or two in your local pub.

Worse, say you have several thousand Twitter followers, and you defame a major minor celebrity, word, can get around. You won’t be able to delete that tweet once it’s been archived, cached, and stored by dozens of scraping systems and bots. You and your celeb target will be stuck with it, and if you said something particularly venomous they might just sue.

All this behaviour brings to the fore, once again, privacy. Privacy laws are usually based on protecting personal information, but in most countries they are fairly woolly. They are completely open to interpretation and precedent-setting judgments.

In the nineteenth century, the right to privacy was thought of as a special case of a more general human right to be “let alone” and today we might say that privacy is “the state of being free from intrusion or disturbance in one’s private life or affairs”. In the global village of social networking and 24/7 connectivity, this is becoming a little difficult to define.

Our ancestors had little notion of privacy, in the middle ages, tightly packed dwellings in the, ahem, gated communities of walled cities and feudal villages, the individual had few rights (unless that individual was the feudal lord, of course). Money and power together bought whatever rights you wanted in those days. Now, money alone is not enough, how much privacy do the likes Britney and other A-listers have, despite their gazillion dollar bank accounts? Perhaps a little more than you think, but not that much more!

The rich and powerful, by whom I mean the shy and anonymous billionaires scrabbling to extract their money from recently open Liechtenstein bank accounts, for instance, presumably have all the privacy they could ever wish for.

Meanwhile, for the likes of you and me…we assume that no one cares about our mom and pop conversations on the phone, our possibly personal tweets, our Facebook Wall graffiti, at least if we’re 99.999% law abiding, anyway. However, as ambient computing of the kind that encompasses not only the internet refrigerator but the implanted biometric chip becomes more prevalent, there are going to be new privacy issues that are way beyond the imaginings of our feudal ancestors.

At first, these concerns will be subtle. Imagine you’re asked to wear a tracking device that would enable a multinational corporation to track your every move and potentially eavesdrop on all your phone conversations…you’d be appalled at the thought. But, how many of you have a mobile phone with location-based services…?

In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) is considering the idea of allowing clients, patients to you and me, the right to store their medical records on Google or some other cloud computing system (another topic I’ve discussed previously). That idea will open up a plethora of privacy concerns for many people.

Today the most well-known threats against privacy are thought to be public surveillance cameras (CCTV), eavesdropping on telephone networks, internet spying, and theft of medical data among other things. But, ambient computing will bring to light so many more issues in the coming years, when your exact coordinates, medical state, contacts list, biometrics, and much more are stored in a handy gadget connected to a Grid network that you carry in your pocket.

How much is your privacy worth? The benefits of that geo-tracking phone could outweigh the personal costs to you of loss of some privacy, they may not. According to Miltiades Anagnostou of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, at the National Technical University of Athens, in Greece, “Today’s information and communication technologies constitute a severe threat for privacy because they increase the volume of personal information available to potential enemies or simply the “society”. At the same time technology enables new ways of intervention in the life of a person.”

Technology is a double-edged sword, in other words, always has been. Our lowly ancestors in the middle ages had little notion of privacy and perhaps even less concern for it. These days, many people worry about it all the time…and if you’re bloggin about it or scribbling on your Facebook wall, they will know all about your concerns…

Research Blogging IconAnagnostou, M., & Lambrou, M. (2009). Privacy now and in the age of ambient intelligence International Journal of Electronic Security and Digital Forensics, 2 (4) DOI: 10.1504/IJESDF.2009.027668

Meanwhile, is the digital age stifling that all important human trait, the ability to forget?

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