14. August 2007, 14:04 | by WD Milner | Full Article |

How much information would it take to uniquely identify you? No names, no social insurance or driver’s licence or passport numbers, no fingerprints or retinal patterns or DNA profiles. The answer might surprise you. We all leave a trail of information as we move through life, like breadcrumbs, and we always have done. Technology however, has made it easier, faster and cheaper to record and analyze these traces. For about half the world’s population there is no real privacy.

Identifying someone is rather like sifting sand for different sized particles. A combination of just gender and your postal code for your address would on average eliminate all but about 40,000 people. In many zip codes, a date of birth would narrow it down to around 100 people.

In just three pieces of non-unique information and you’re down to fewer than one in 100 persons. If one adds some situational context, but nothing specifically identifiable as you, such as the kind of car you drive, the restaurants you frequent, a person can typically be identified with just a couple more items, usually no more than 10 to 20, none of which would be considered personally identifying information. It's this ability to build context and use it as an efficient filter for data that makes privacy so hard to maintain; and it's about to get a whole lot worse.

As the world becomes more routinely tied into the use of various products and services such as E911 and GPS enabled cellular telephones, WiFi access points and black-box recorders in autos and increased surveillance in the name of public security making it fairly simple to identify individuals, correlation software will make it possible to construct a nearly complete record of a person’s life and make it very hard to hide.

While this could prove of benefit should you need for some reason to prove where you were, or were not, and when, as a society we are not ready for this level of personal visibility. The key questions are then: Who owns our personally identifying information? Who assures that it is accurate and relevant? Who can access and use it? What are its permitted uses? Many of the answers depend on where you live and how the laws there constrain or allow data use. Care must be taken where appropriate use is not yet defined, to avoid making arbitrary decisions on what can and can not be done with the data that systems collect, both legally and ethically.

Have we seen the end of privacy? Not quite yet but unless things change it could well be gone completely within five to ten years.

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Categories: ,
Keywords: privacy,surveillance,gps,e911,information,identity



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