Monday, June 06, 2005

The News – 06/06/05

You Have No Privacy. Get Over It!

Scott McNeely, CEO of Sun Microsystems, said this famous quote many years ago, well in advance of the recent privacy compromises from trusted institutions like ChoicePoint and Lexis/Nexus.

McNeely admits he was trying to be provocative, to get people thinking, but his real views on privacy – albeit from 2000, which is so pre-, well, everything – seem a bit naïve in the light of what’s gone on since.

At a speech in Australia during the Summer Olympics of 2000, McNeely attempted to clarify his statement.

You do not want total privacy. You want somebody to have your medical records if you get hit by a truck and [if] you cannot tell them the combination to your safe or where your medical records are kept, you have a problem. In effect you want your medical records to be available online out over the Internet. You want every ambulance driver to be able to unlock it.

So that is a little risk you take every ambulance driver might be able to tap into your medical records. Get over it. That is better getting hit by a truck and dying.

There are two reasons for needing privacy or wanting privacy. There are many reasons, [I] guess.

One is you are ashamed of what you are doing. You do not want anybody to know about it.

The second is maybe there [are] health reasons or whatever that you want to have privacy and you deserve some privacy for health condition when you are applying for insurance or whatever for fairness and equity reasons.

Privacy has never been absolute. If you want privacy do not tell anybody. Shop all the time with a mask and use cash and wear gloves. There is going to be a trade-off. Somebody knows your bank account. The government knows how much money you make. Your doctor and everybody in the health care community knows your medical condition. Your insurance company knows all this stuff. They actually force you to get a physical and then they read it. What is privacy? You know what—I kind of like people to know what I like. I do not like spam. With the new [golf shoe] spider spikes, I want to know about that. That is not spam to me. Unless people know I like to play golf they do not know that. I am not ashamed that I like golf.

Absolute privacy is a disaster as well as inappropriate dissemination of information. It is a very complicated topic. I think it is treated quite hysterically and superficially by a lot of people.

So McNeely’s argument (which seems a bit, er, jet-lagged) is a little more complicated than his zinger line, but it ignores a real threat to privacy that is not often discussed. It may be OK for MasterCard to know what I buy and my insurance company to know about my health and the highway department to know which toll booths I pass with my iPass electronic toll device, but the real threat is putting all that information together.

In isolation, all these little bits of privacy we give away don’t seem like a big deal. In fact, it seems that people’s first reaction when I talk about various invasions of privacy such as the Patriot Act is, “I’ve got nothing to fear. I’m not a terrorist or a criminal.” Yeah, today you’re not. But what if Congress passes a law prohibiting picking your nose? Or criticizing the president? You don’t think they’re capable of it? See the Terri Schiavo case.

The consolidation of private information is a grave threat to our freedom, as this little fantasy put together by the ACLU (who is either a source of information about why we should bomb Iraq, or not to be taken seriously, according to Donald Rumsfeld) demonstrates.

If you don’t have the Flash plug-in to view the piece, here’s a quick summary along with whether the plot point is reality or fantasy. Hapless Jim Kelly calls a pizza place and is immediately identified by his caller ID as calling from his cell phone (reality). The attendant confirms his national ID card number (fantasy at the moment, although his Social Security Number (SSN) would be almost as good today.)

He orders two double-meat pizzas but is informed there will be surcharge because his medical records indicate he has high blood pressure and cholesterol (fantasy; HIPAA prohibits this kind of sharing of information today) and because there was recently a robbery in his neighborhood, causing a surcharge for dangerous areas (reality.)

He argues a bit about the cost, but the attendant pulls up his purchase records and says since he just bought tickets to Hawaii, he obviously has cash (fantasy, although the Feds want to consolidate all travel information into a common database). She notes, however, from looking at his library card records, that he checked out a book on cheap travel (fantasy), although she doesn’t note another borrowed book, on depression. She checks his shopping records and finds out he has a 42-inch waist and recently bought a large box of condoms (fantasy).

Every piece of information in the ACLU scenario is legitimately shared by the poor pizza purchaser, even though some information he has no choice but to share. But consolidating it, linking it, and making it available to third parties – the business model of companies like ChoicePoint and Equifax – makes the information a much bigger threat to the overweight sap’s privacy, and his ability to act as he sees fit and buy that double-meat pizza.

The ACLU is obviously worried about the national identity card aspect of all of this. But, get over it, your SSN is just about as good as a national identity card, even though it is expressly prohibited to be used as such. And a national ID card is exactly what Congress approved in February, to no great fanfare. Why aren’t you worried about it? Because you have nothing to hide, like high cholesterol, waist size, what you purchase and where you go? What if that information fell into the hands of telemarketers or worse, spammers?

OK, let’s get real here. Go to, type in your name, and see what comes up. If they don’t find you right away, try limiting the search by state. Notice how easily you can get a background check on yourself. Wonder what it would turn up?

Now of course, this information is probably in your local phone book. But now anyone can search thousands of phone books.

Not scared yet? Do a search for your phone number on Google. If you’re lucky, like me, you’ll see a link like:

Phonebook results for 952-555-5555 Deborah Ellsworth, (952) 555-5555, 8273 Westwood Hills Curv, Minneapolis, MN 55426 Google Maps Yahoo! Maps MapQuest Michael Ellsworth, (952) 555-5555, 8273 Westwood Hills Curv, Minneapolis, MN 55426 Google Maps Yahoo! Maps MapQuest

Why did I change the phone number in this example despite the fact I’m in the book? Because I’m not an idiot, that’s why. But check out the maps. You can find out where I live. I’ve got nothing to hide, and no enemies who harbor evil intent that I know about, but I’m not that comfortable with everyone in the world knowing where I live, even though that’s in the phone book, too. You see, I write an online newsletter and might just offend someone who might want to look me up.

Remember, folks, the right to privacy is not mentioned or guaranteed in the US Constitution, so you’re on your own. Also remember that nothing electronic is every entirely secure. And although you might think of this as a lefty concern, privacy is not a partisan issue. We all value it, and we all could lose it unless we speak up. Thanks to Alert SNS Reader Doug Laney for the pointer to the ACLU piece.

Briefly Noted

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Thanks to Alert SNS Reader Bill Lehnertz of TLC Financial for the pointer.

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