Thursday, August 20, 2009

The end of privacy as we know it?

There's a very worrying article on CNET that discusses the ever-diminishing privacy of the individual. A brief excerpt:

The population of the world stands at about 7 billion. So it takes only 10 digits to label each human being on the planet uniquely.

This simple arithmetic observation offers powerful insight into the limits of privacy. It dictates something we might call the 10-Digit Rule: just 10 digits or so of distinctive personal information are enough to identify you uniquely. They're enough to strip away your anonymity on the Internet or call out your name as you walk down the street. The 10-Digit Rule means that as our electronic gadgets grow chattier, and databases swell, we must accept that in most walks of life, we'll soon be wearing our names on our foreheads.

A study of 1990 U.S. Census data revealed that 87 percent of the people in the United States were uniquely identifiable with just three pieces of information: five-digit ZIP code, gender, and date of birth. Internet surfers today spew considerably more information than that. Web sites can pinpoint our geographical locations, computer models, and browser types, and they can silently track us using cookies. Banking sites even confirm our identities by verifying that our log-ins take place at consistent times of day.

Database dossiers, too, carry surprising amounts of identifying information, even when specifically anonymized for privacy.

. . .

Our physical belongings also betray our anonymity by silently calling out identity-betraying digits. Small wireless microchips--often called radio frequency identification, or RFID, tags--reside in car keys, credit cards, passports, building entrance badges, and transit passes. They emit unique serial numbers.

Once linked to our names--when we make credit card purchases, for instance--these microchips enable us to be tracked without our realizing it. One popular book inflames imaginations with the lurid title, "Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track your Every Move with RFID."

But wireless microchips also highlight the futility of anonymity protections. To begin with, concerns about RFID tracking miss the forest for the trees. After all, mobile phones are ubiquitous and can be tracked at much longer ranges than standalone chips. Many people have GPS receivers in their phones and are signing up for location-based services, voluntarily (if selectively) disclosing their movements. There's little point in hiding the serial numbers of chips when your mobile phone squeals on you.

. . .

In the end, we probably won't need to carry anything at all to see our identities betrayed in public spaces. There are already tens of millions of surveillance cameras in public spaces in the United States.

Face recognition software is crude today, but it will improve. Cameras will eventually recognize faces as well as people do. Unlike people, though, they'll have the backing of databases containing millions of faces--or the headshots that so many of us already post online.

There's more at the link.

Being a person who values his privacy, I find this very disturbing. It's even more so when read in the light of another report this week, which reveals that scientists can 'manufacture' even DNA evidence to link one to a given location - like a crime scene. An excerpt:

Scientists have shown it is possible to fake DNA evidence, potentially undermining the credibility of the key forensic technique.

Using equipment found in labs up and down the country, they obliterated all traces of DNA from a blood sample and added someone else's genetic material in its place.

The swap was so successful it fooled scientists who carry out DNA fingerprinting for U.S. courts.

The development raises the possibility of samples of blood or saliva being planted at crime scenes, leading to the innocent being wrongly convicted and the guilty going free.

Israeli researcher Dan Frumkin, who produced the bogus DNA, said: 'If you can fake blood, saliva or any other tissue, you can engineer a crime scene. Any biology undergraduate could perform this.'

Again, there's more at the link.

So, someone wishing to do you the dirty could track your movements, pinpoint your location, and manufacture evidence suggesting you committed a crime there. All of that material - the tracking of your movements, the DNA evidence, etc. - would in turn be more than enough to convict you of the crime in question.

Minority Report, anyone? Brave New World, perhaps?


Stop the world - I want to get off!


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