Stephen Baker

The Numerati
Home - posts tagged as Privacy

Oh, and I found out he was married, too...
December 1, 2008Privacy

A New Scientist piece on the book was picked up by ABCnews, and I got a kick out of one of the comments. One woman wrote:

I paid a small fee to do an online background check on my ex boyfriend. The report listed all the addresses he has lived at, property he owned, phone numbers he used, even the names of his neighbors and much more. Oh and I found out he was married, too.

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Death of ephemeral chat
November 25, 2008Privacy

 "...Give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged." --Cardinal Richelieu

Bruce Schneier cites Cardinal Richelieu in his post about the death of ephemeral chat. He uses the case of Barack Obama's recently retired (and much lamented) Blackberry to make the point that our conversations, which used to pass quickly through the air, are now stored digitally--and searchable. They turn into minable data, the raw material for the Numerati.

Schneier writes: We know this intellectually, but we haven't truly internalized it. We type on, engrossed in conversation, forgetting we're being recorded and those recordings might come back to haunt us later.

I like this point Schneier makes in an earlier essay about privacy.

In some ways, this tidal wave of data is the pollution problem of the information age. All information processes produce it. If we ignore the problem, it will stay around forever. And the only way to successfully deal with it is to pass laws regulating its generation, use and eventual disposal.

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Privacy: Enough evasion
November 22, 2008Privacy


Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper

OK, after all these weeks touring and answering questions, I'm finally ready to admit it: Lots of people care deeply about privacy. They want to know exactly what the rise of the Numerati means for privacy, and I don't give explicit answers.

I offer lots of discussion points, but very few clear answers. This is partly because I don't know, partly because I choose not focus on policy. But now that I see how much people care, it's time to wrestle with the question more seriously. What happens to our privacy? What tools and laws will we have to protect it? Perhaps more to the point, what does privacy mean in 2008, and what will it mean in 2018?

Here's how I've answered the question to date: (Some might call it sidestepping.)

1) When you have much a generation that spills its most intimate details on social networks, who's to say what privacy means?

2) People say they care deeply about privacy, but routinely give away data in return for financial savings, convenience and the promise of security.

3) The demand for privacy will create new markets for technology, systems that will help people manage and protect their data, and others that will enable people and companies to anonymize data bases. (This will be crucial for medical research.)

I believe all those points, but they avoid the question people have been asking me. So, in coming months I'm going to be looking more and more at privacy. If you have ideas about sources I should check out, specialists I should talk to, case studies of privacy abuses, etc., please let me know. Thanks.

* * *

By the way, I got a review in the Sunday Times (of London) last week. They bundled The Numerati with Buyology, a book I reviewed in BusinessWeek. I thought the review was fair and to the point. But I have to admit that it stung when the reviewer wrote: "But, in the end, both books are unsettling. Partly because they are badly written." That single sentence (fragment) bothered me all the way from Newark to Austin last Sunday. And when I learned that the Monday-Saturday Times was coming back with another review today, I braced myself. Seeing that it was by Ian Stewart, a prominent mathematician, and that he was reviewing it with the weighty Princeton Companion to Mathematics, I just about choked on my coffee. However, I was relieved that he took the book in the right spirit (at least the one I hope for):

The Numerati is short, has no formulas, and no overt mathematical concepts beyond ordinary numbers. It's written in a breezy journalistic style and it avoids sensationalism even when this must have been tempting.

Stewart does complain that I leave one question, closely related to privacy, unanswered::

Some of these developments are good, some bad - loss of privacy, even a police state. Another key question, strangely missing from the book, is: will we let these things happen?

That's assuming that such evasion will remain in our power, which is another theme to pursue as I look into privacy...

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Surveillance: It starts with babies (and oldsters)
November 20, 2008Privacy

Just read a story in this morning's Austin American-Statesman
about how hospitals are tagging newborn's umbilical stumps with radio ID tags. This is to guard against baby-napping, which occurs about three times a year in U.S. hospitals, according to the stats in the story. So, to guard against this miniscule risk, a surveillance technology is implimented.

That will be the pattern. Got to run to Austin Airport. Flying home.

By the way, here's a nice blog post by Jeff Jonas, one of the key Numerati featured in the terrorism chapter.

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A member of the Numerati (rear view)?
November 6, 2008Privacy

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Commenter on Schneier blog tweaks civil libertarians
October 15, 2008Privacy

Bruce Schneier is a good person to follow on security and privacy issues. I was reading his blog this p.m. and came across an interesting discussion in comments. The provocateur is a commenter called MQ who argues that outrage over the privacy implications of NSA snooping is misplaced. He draws a line here between private and public exchanges:

Phone in your house: Private. Phone conversation going over public infrastructure/medium (phone company, phone lines..etc) not private...

The phone call NO LONGER BELONGS TO YOU once it leaves your private domain.

Let me give you a real sceario: You're going on a trip. Do you let someone come into your home and search your luggage? No. So you get to the airport and they search your luggage. WHERE'S THE CIVIL LIBERTIES VIOLATION ALARM!!!??? :p Now your luggage has left your private domain and it becomes public domain. While doing the search, an agent finds some embarrasing stuff in there, like some whips and chains and they start joking to each other about it. I have a one word question: So?

What do you think of MQ's logic?

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How to talk back to behavioral ads
October 14, 2008Privacy

Here's an good commentary from David Rostan, co-founder of Listens to You. It's a site that gives people a tool to talk back to advertisers, and control the ads that come our way.

His point is that we often sacrifice some of our privacy in exchange for the promise of enhanced services, or customization. But then the computers (programmed, naturally, by the Numerati) have been known to screw things up. His example:

A user may be required to give her age (34) to register to use a website. She agrees because the website claims that this is to insure that children do not use websites without supervision – i.e. as a safety precaution – but then she sees the information used to target her with ads for children’s clothing (she’s happily single with no kids). So, the ad is not only irrelevant, but it is also a surprise to her that her age is being used in a way she did not intend. She stops looking at ads, has a mistrust of the website brand, has a mistrust of the advertiser and, even when served appropriate ads, still carries a perception that the ad is not trustworthy or not for her.


This leads us to one of the most sensitive challenges facing the Numerati. On certain occasions, we want them to know us--perhaps to remember what size shoes we wear or what movies we might like. But too many insights on their part can give us the creeps, or feel intrusive. On the other extreme, than can get us wrong. One solution? Systems that let us talk back.

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Green-zone eavesdropping: Not data mining
October 10, 2008Privacy

Naturally, the reports that National Security Agency workers eavesdropped on phone calls of Americans working in Bagdhad's Green Zone raise serious of questions about data mining and privacy. When I talk about the Numerati combing through our shopping and work data, this is the type of invasion people often bring up: According to these reports, the NSA officials listened to phone talks about sex and other private matters, and joked about them.

But this is wiretapping, not statistical data mining. In data mining, it's machines going through patterns of billions of words and phone calls. They may intrude, but don't get thrills from it. The scary part about data mining for national security, as outlined in a report this week, is that the patterns can produce all sorts of false positives--innocent people who may appear to be acting like potential terrorists.

What we're hearing about in the Green Zone is closer to what I describe in the book as the "gum-shoe" approach. It starts with a lead, a person with apparent links to a plot, and then follows that person's data trail: Who he or she talks to, e-mails, etc. It involves data--as information--but not pattern recognition. What is frightening about this NSA report is that apparently all kinds of people working in the Green Zone fit into that "suspicious" category. And if people in the Green Zone can be placed under this surveillance, how about Americans of Arab descent, watchers of Al Jazeera, people who eat at certain types of restaurants?

UPDATE: For background, here's a 2003 defense of data mining from an industry group.

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Dictatorship of the Numerati: a vision
September 21, 2008Privacy





Worker in Fritz Lang's Metropolis

I don't read much sci-fi (Maybe I should). But futurists of a certain bent are already predicting the dreadful state of control that the Numerati could one day create. Here's Babak Makkinejad, a consultant at EDS, on Crimson Reason, discussing data mining as a building block "for potentially oppressive social organizations."

Such a social organization could be designed around the application of cybernetics (control-feedback theory) to society for maintaining a homeostatic state where Liberty is nowhere to be found. The distributed nature of data collection and cybernetic control will make it impossible to change such a system through the customary practice of a revolution that captures the central organs of the state. In fact, the system can only be changed by smashing it or waiting long enough for the Second Law of Thermodynamics to kick-in; the accumulated entropy causing it to finally fail.

By the way, here's an interview I did in Toronto with the CBC's Nora Young for the Spark radio show.  And here's a review in today's Chicago Sun-Times. One small caveat to the Sun-Times review: The supermarket data that Accenture researchers are analyzing is anonymous. They don't know (or care) who the shoppers are.

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Surveillance made easy
September 8, 2008Privacy

The New Scientist provides details on the latest surveillance in the UK--and the software used to analyse the data.

from the story:

"[T]he UK Home Office ...announced plans to give law-enforcement agencies, local councils and other public bodies access to the details of people's text messages, emails and internet activity. The move followed its announcement in May that it was considering creating a massive central database to store all this data, as a tool to help the security services tackle crime and terrorism...

"Once a person is being monitored, pattern-recognition software first identifies their typical behaviour, such as repeated calls to certain numbers over a period of a few months. The software can then identify any deviations from the norm and flag up unusual activities, such as transactions with an exotic bank, or contact with someone who is also under surveillance, so that analysts can take a closer look."


It's worth reading the entire article. One key point, which I stress in the book: Marketers have loads and loads of data about our patterns of driving, shopping, even shop-lifting. But the law enforcement agencies lack good statistical data on the behavior of terrorists. This makes building statistical models of them nearly impossible.

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