Privacy, lack thereof.

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This past weekend I got into a pretty long discussion about privacy, governmental, corporate, and criminal tracking of everything you do (Big/Little/Silent brother), and such related topics. It was good debate. One of 'em was an actual lawyer versed in these issues who works for a library-related non-profit. How cool is that? Working as I do for a liberal institution of higher ed we do value our individuality and right to express same.

Big Brother. We know this one, Orwell told us all about it in his book 1984. Governmental tracking of people for their own safety.

LIttle Brother. A more recent development, but private-sector tracking of people for reasons relating to profit. Your browsing habits are being tracked by the ad agencies. That kind of thing.

Silent Brother. A term I came up with, but it's obvious enough I wouldn't be surprised to learn someone else came up with it too. Criminal tracking of everything you do for reasons of illicit profit. Russian crime gangs specializing in identity theft.

Now thats out of the way, some nitty gritty. Under the fold.
Apparently David Brin wrote a novel a while back about a society in which things move a lot better since everyone knows everything about everyone else, and the lack of a need to keep secrets lubricated everything. In this glass-house/panopticon society there are no closets to hide in. Or supply rooms to pilfer. Everyone behaves civilly, and misconduct is a lot harder to hide. Isn't this swell?

As Miss Manners will tell you, the little white lie and the ability to ignore certain faults are the lubricant by which civil discourse proceeds. We all need our secrets, since we are all individuals. If you've ever spent a lot of time in a small town, you have some idea of the faults inherent in such an everyone-knows-everything system.

The pressure to conform to social norms is universal and without respite in such a society. Vegan by day, but once in a while you sneak some Ben & Jerry's? Busted, you hypocrite. Teacher of primary kids by day, but look at porn sites on the internet once in a while at home? Tut tut, can't have pervs like you teaching our young kids. When guilty pleasures become universally known, they're no longer pleasures, they become guilty with societal pressure to back it up.

So clearly, everyone-knows-everything doesn't work, but what about the other three modes? You the individual don't necessarily have access to the databases storing all this information so you can have secrets from other people. What motivates the formation of a big/little/silent brother surveillance environment?

Big Brother as we all know, does it to protect the state for the public safety. The UK's expansion of closed-circuit television surveillance is entirely in this vein. As is the Department of Homeland Security's tracking of every air traveler in the US. You the citizen have exceedingly little access into these databases, but the Government does. Something goes wrong, and they know exactly who was there.

Little Brother does it for above-board profit. The more they know about you, the better they can tune advertising to your particular tastes. The more applications will just work the way you want them to, without having to set anything up. The more they know about you, the more money they can make selling that information to people with legitimate reasons to track you down, such as lawyers or former business partners looking to get paid.

Silent Brother does it for below-board profit. The more they know about you, the better able they are to impersonate you and make off with your resources. The more they know about you, the better able they are to hold your reputation ransom pending specified behavior. The more they know about you, the better able they are to impersonate you and get places they couldn't otherwise get to.

All three of these tie in. Big Brother buys information from Little Brother, and Silent Brother steals it from the other two.

Silent Brother, the criminal element, is the monkey-wrench not mentioned by proponents of universal surveillance. Garbage-In/Garbage-Out is another such wrench that does get some traction in the media. Big Brother's, "for the public good," focus is a Utopian dream because of this.

As times goes on, who you are is based less on your physical self and more on how you're represented in various databases. A similar transition has happened to monetary systems over the last 500 years, as exchanging tokens of values has been replaced by exchanging promissory notes for tokens of value, which in turn was replaced by exchanging abstractions of units of value. In the US official identity is founded upon pieces of paper, the birth-certificate or naturalized-citizen form, and expanded through things like Drivers Licenses, Military Service records, Passports, and interactions with the legal system. Unofficial but still very important identity is based in things like your credit reputation (credit score), buying habits, and established political leanings. Casual identity is based in things like your preferred online and gaming usernames and avatar/icons and whatever is returned by searching for your real name in public search engines.

All of these tokens of identity, with the possible exception of the birth certificate, are based in databases these days. Some of them have extensions into the physical, such as government issued identity documents (passport, drivers license) that may be able to stand on their own. Most, though, are just lines in a database that have meaning when aggregated.

Which is to say, database safety is a critical thing to ensuring the reliability of this ad-hoc identity system we've built. Complicating this is that each person doesn't actually have an indelible GUID assigned to them at birth that is both globally unique and only usable by that one person which would make cross-database interactions much more reliable. Some might claim that biometrics will provide this GUID (the 'who you are' of the authentication triad), but the technology isn't even close to providing this yet despite what the vendors say; it doesn't help one whit that 'who you are' can change over a lifetime.

To drill into details a bit, people with entirely too common names (John Smith), names spelled counter-intuitively (Cristyal McKenzie), names with foreign characters (Günter), or long names with a variety of nick-name possibilities (Rebecca Harris), can't exactly rely on their name acting as a kind of primary key. John Smith will run into the duplication problem. Cristyal will end up 'Crystal' due to operator entry errors. Rebecca will show up as Rebecca, Becky, Becca, Beka, or even Becks, depending on if she put her daily use name or her full name in the name field. Günter will end up Gunter, Guenter, and maybe even actually Günter once in a while. The reality of these databases is unavoidably messy.

The Little Brother database are perhaps the noisiest in this regard, and Big Brother's are far from immune to this. Witness countless people accidentally on the Do Not Fly list due to a name collision. Silent Brother doesn't care so long as what they do have is good enough to get by. In fact, Silent Brother likes this setup since fuzzy identities are easier to impersonate.

Once you have established an identity, you then start establishing a reputation. Reputation is just as important as identity, if not more so, in many circles so protecting that from fraudulent activity is as key as protecting your identity documents. This takes diligence.

I read an account recently of a shake-down scheme in an MMORPG recently, in a game that had an eBay like feedback mechanism. How it worked is that a newish player would be approached by a cartel member, who then demands that the player do this thing or the cartel member would have all of his friends down-vote the newish player's reputation. If the player resisted, the cartel member would tell their online buddies to give a demo and suddenly the reputation bar goes from solid green to a third red in 30 seconds. Since no one will do business with anyone with more than a sliver of red, this is a major thing. If the player cooperates, the down-votes are retracted and reputation is restored. If the player doesn't cooperate, their reputation bar will have a sliver of green in a sea of red. Player either does the thing, or quits the game. You can't sue for slander in a game.

Reputation systems like these are an abstraction of the kind everyone does on a day to day basis, and are actively managed in the sense that you actively chose to impact someone's reputation by participating. The other kind of reputation, the kind built after repeated interactions with you, is not as obvious but important in other ways. When getting a new job, it is now assumed that the hiring manager will drop your name into Google and see what they can find, some places even demand access to your social networking sites so they can figure you out. If a divorce proceeding turns nasty it is entirely possible that your entire online history will be delved for dirt that could influence a judge as to the merit of your character.

It is these sorts of needs that fuel the Little Brother identity and reputation databases. Not all divorce lawyers are versed in how to chase every last online detail of a person, but they certainly can write a check to a firm that is trained in just that and get back a report. Or potential employers, lenders, charity organizations, or the Government.

Case in point. A friend of a friend created a Twitter account. After 20 minutes she realized that it had been created with her real name, so she deleted it. She never tweeted from it, so thought she was safe. And yet, she later found out that her employer had somehow managed to link her name with an online identity she'd though had been firewalled. It turns out that the 20 minutes that twitter account was online was long enough for it to be indexed by a Little Brother database of some kind, and the profile data she'd put in there pointed to the other online identity. Now she knows that her name is linked to that other online identity, at least in one database. She was not happy to learn this.

Ubiquitous physical surveillance is a lot harder than the online kind. The UK is famous for its CCTV system, and yet it's not that useful for cracking cases. People have learned that the right kind of hood and keeping your face away from the cameras can prevent  recognition. They've built so many sensors that the data flow exceeds storage and analysis capacity. In time the ability to isolate faces in a video stream will move to the camera itself, so the amount of data being stored is minimized; you don't need 1.7 hours of video on an intersection where the only thing that happened is a stray dog walked across it. Storage ability is ever increasing.

Closer to home red-light cameras are proliferating in Washington State. These cameras are a Little Brother technology used by Big Brother. The money is being made by both entities, but the data is being used only by Big Brother. This technology is only made possible by the ability to identify license plate numbers from a live video stream. More than one cash-strapped WA City has learned what kind of cash cow these cameras are and are installing them everywhere. It doesn't take much of an advance to track every car that passes through an intersection, which will give a very detailed view of where any car was at any given time.

Discrete cell-phone emissions are already being used to track people's movements through commercial space.

One Database To Track Them All proposals need to be resisted, at least until the ability to verify and challenge data held within them is addressed. This is a Big Brother thing, but at least its an area we actually have a voice in. Little Brother databases exist entirely in the private sector, and there isn't much we can do about that short of convincing Big Brother that letting us sanitize the Little Brother databases is actually in its interests. To some extent we can already do this for our credit reputation, but the same can't be said of the big marketing databases.

Biometrics are not a magic identity wand. I've talked about this before. It isn't your actual fingerprint/iris-scan/blood-type/DNA-sequence going into the identity database, it's a digital representation of a fundamentally analog measurement of your body, and as with all analog/digital conversions, they're fuzzy. And once it has fallen into someone else's hands you can't change them. Or worse, they can change on you as you grow older or have bits lopped off by accident.

Online reputation matters more and more every year, and it is better indexed as each year passes. Sometimes even maliciously so. WebAPIs make this MUCH easier than it used to be back in the days of screen-scraping. We need to be better educated about the impacts these private sector databases can have on our lives.

Because, really, people do deserve privacy. Not just from the Government, but also from monied private interests. We are all individuals with our own individual quirks and foibles. If every foible is to be held accountable for public or monied scrutiny, I don't want to live there.

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I can;t beleive how things have changed from 20-30 years ago. Everything is done online now from banking to meeting new people. If it wasn't for the need for actual human interaction our society would never leave their homes!