Privacy. Does it have your attention yet?

Privacy stories and concerns are everywhere. There are constant issues over privacy at Facebook. Look, for example, at 10 Solid Tips to Safeguard Your Facebook Privacy and at Could I have my stuff back, please.

Privacy in Google Books has been an ongoing issue for the Privacy, Free Speech and Technology Blog at the ACLU of Northern California. TechDirt asks How Far Should Google Go To Protect User Privacy In Lawsuits?

We keep hearing warnings about things that just won’t go away or be undone once they are on the Internet. The Digital Guidebook wrote Something to Think About: Your Digital Identity is the New Chastity.

It’s considered laughable when eBay and Verison get privacy awards. We recognize the ridiculousness the award, as Dana Oshiro points out in Is This a Joke? eBay and Verizon Win Privacy Award.

A new search engine called Yauba debuts that promises that you can search privately and leave no trace.

I don’t know about you, but I read articles like that, or check out the search engine, I think a bit, then go on doing what I’m doing, what I’ve always done.

Well, that was true. Then I saw What Information is “Personally Identifiable”? from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

Mr. X lives in ZIP code 02138 and was born July 31, 1945.

These facts about him were included in an anonymized medical record released to the public. Sounds like Mr. X is pretty anonymous, right?

Not if you’re Latanya Sweeney, a Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor who showed in 1997 that this information was enough to pin down Mr. X’s more familiar identity — William Weld, the governor of Massachusetts throughout the 1990s.

Gender, ZIP code, and birth date feel anonymous, but Prof. Sweeney was able to identify Governor Weld through them for two reasons. First, each of these facts about an individual (or other kinds of facts we might not usually think of as identifying) independently narrows down the population, so much so that the combination of (gender, ZIP code, birthdate) was unique for about 87% of the U.S. population.

That got my attention.

The EFF report went on to say:

But research by Prof. Sweeney and other experts has demonstrated that surprisingly many facts, including those that seem quite innocuous, neutral, or “common”, could potentially identify an individual. Privacy law, mainly clinging to a traditional intuitive notion of identifiability, has largely not kept up with the technical reality.

CNet picked up on the story and wrote How 10 digits will end privacy as we know it. The 10 digits being the aforementioned five-digit ZIP code, gender, and date of birth. CNet said,

Knowing just a little about a subscriber–say, six to eight movie preferences, the type of thing you might post on a social-networking site–the researchers found that they could pick out your anonymous Netflix profile, if you had one in the set. The Netflix study shows that those 10 deanonymizing digits can hide in surprising places.

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.

CNet mentioned other privacy issues such as the ubiquity of surveillance cameras and concluded that soon, “. . . on the Internet, everyone will know if you’re a dog.”

An experimental project at MIT, dubbed “Gaydar” suggests that your online data can determine if you are gay or not. From Project Gaydar:

Using data from the social network Facebook, they made a striking discovery: just by looking at a person’s online friends, they could predict whether the person was gay. They did this with a software program that looked at the gender and sexuality of a person’s friends and, using statistical analysis, made a prediction. The two students had no way of checking all of their predictions, but based on their own knowledge outside the Facebook world, their computer program appeared quite accurate for men, they said. People may be effectively “outing” themselves just by the virtual company they keep.

“When they first did it, it was absolutely striking – we said, ‘Oh my God – you can actually put some computation behind that,’ ” said Hal Abelson, a computer science professor at MIT who co-taught the course. “That pulls the rug out from a whole policy and technology perspective that the point is to give you control over your information – because you don’t have control over your information.”

The article goes on to mention other researchers who have been able to determine political affiliation using online data about music favorites and other information.

The Gaydar software only seems to work for gay men. Apparently a woman won’t accidentally out herself by having lesbians in her friends list. What if you are a woman with gay men friends? Will the software crash?

I’m being silly, but this is a serious topic. Could information about your sexuality or political affiliation make a difference to a potential employer? A homophobic neighbor? I think you know the answer to that.

At Langwitches Blog, the issues are discussed in Digital Footprint- Your Online Data Trail

Now the report is almost 2 years old. I am wondering if perception about digital footprints has changed? Have we moved from trying to limit and prevent information about us to be published online (out of fear of privacy loss, identity theft or misrepresentation) to making sure that some trail of us, who we are and stand for can be found online?

Ask yourself the following

  • In what category do you fall? Worried, confident, concerned or unfazed?
  • Are you as a teacher thinking about, developing, building, monitoring, and protecting YOUR digital footprint?
  • Are you thinking about your footprint when (or not) posting or commenting on blogs, uploading student projects, participating on twitter, nings and other social network places?
  • Do you keep your personal and professional digital footprint separate?
  • Are you one to “hope for” or “not wanting” parents, principals, students and others finding a trail to and about you?
  • Do you think that teachers are (will be) at a disadvantage in the future if they do not have pertinent search results when googled?

If you aren’t paying attention to privacy yet, now is the time to get your head in the game and take a look at how you live your online life. Color me concerned.

Want to get really down with the issue of privacy? There’s a symposium at Stanford in March 2010 you might consider.

Cross-posted at BlogHer.

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