• The Great Privacy Debate

    July 18, 2011 • Privacy • 0 Comments

    The alarm goes off at 5:30am. While you’re at the coffee maker, you check the day’s weather and headlines on your smartphone. The Fed’s report is due at 10:00am, the local team split a double-header the night before, and it looks like it’s going to be another scorcher – its already 83oF and climbing. In the car, you drive in traffic all the way down the turnpike, using your Bluetooth headset to check your voicemail and return calls that came in while you were sleeping. You’re thankful for the EZ-Pass transponder that lets you breeze past the toll booths at speed. Arriving at the train station, you swipe your commuter card at the turnstile and crowd onto the platform just as the train arrives.

    While on the train, you synch your phone with your office calendar, while your Kindle downloads and you scan the morning papers. Arriving at Central Station in the city, you join the masses climbing up out of the underground, and check your watch. Just enough time to grab that second cup of coffee! You head into Starbucks, where you order your “usual” – a vente iced coffee, unsweetened, with a shot of vanilla flavor. You swipe your smartphone over the reader at the cashier’s stand to pay for your order, and receive an alert message that your Starbucks account is low and in need of a re-charge. You grab your iced coffee, and head for the elevator, ready to hit the office and begin the day.

    From the time you woke up, you’ve been leaving a trail of digital data, sometimes euphemistically referred to as “digital exhaust”. Your phone and your cellular carrier report your location, and make note of your data transactions and calls. Your car, in coordination with your insurance carrier, records your driving activities, including average speed and sudden accelerations or braking. Last year you received a $250 “good driver” discount for your behavior behind the wheel. The onboard computer alerts you to the fact that you have only 500 miles before your next oil change. At the garage next week, your mechanic will download diagnostic data from the onboard data and note the two times your car stalled when stopped in traffic, indicating an oxygen sensor needs replacement. Your commuter card notes what time you arrived at the train station, and which train you boarded. Somewhere, in a transit authority computer, your commute is aggregated with thousands of others, and a decision is made to add an additional car to the 7:30am train to handle the growing seasonal influx of people at that time of day.

    As you exit Central Station, your smartphone reconnects with the network and once again reports out your position. It makes note of the time you “left” the network and the time you reconnected, suggesting that switch congestion just outside Central Station lengthened your commute by 7 minutes above average this morning. In a control center, train and traffic managers adjust the finally tuned ballet of trains entering and leaving the station, so that tomorrow’s train will be on time. At Starbucks, your personal order and tastes are noted, and in addition to the reminder to re-charge your account, a discount coupon incenting you to try the latest breakfast item from Starbucks is uploaded via SMS to your phone.

    Every hour of every day, countless bits of data that reflect your personal choices and behaviors are being, collected, collated, processed and stored across the internet. And all this is in addition to all the transient and demographic data that you volunteer as you surf the net. Today there is an increasingly growing debate on the subject of Privacy. How much data is too much? Who is watching? What about identity theft? How can I regain and protect my privacy? Can I retain my privacy?

    Unfortunately, what’s missing from much of that debate is the simple recognition that the ship has already sailed. As the authors note in a recent issue of IEEE Computer* , “It’s time for our privacy debates to reflect the fact that the age of ubiquitous data collection is already here.” The question is no longer how we rein in this apparent invasion of privacy. For better or worse, the data is out there and our digital footprints will only continue to grow with time. What’s more, this data has become essential to commerce, electronic and otherwise. We are left with the following quandary – how do we balance the need to preserve and protect individuals’ right to privacy with the increasing demands for data to drive commercial ventures, support societal needs in infrastructure, finance, and healthcare, and the ever-increasing level of social network connectivity?


    *  Breznits, Dan;  Murphree, Michael;  and Goodman, Seymour;,  “Ubiquitous Data Collection: Rethinking Privacy Debates,” ],” Computer, IEEE , vol.44, no.6, pp.100-102, June, 2011, http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpls/abs_all.jsp?arnumber=5875944

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