Data Aggregation in a Digital World = Too Much

01/27/2012

It’s a wonder I didn’t do better in school. I didn’t do bad, but I could have just done…better. The thing is, I like to read a lot. Looking through the search engine results, forever logged somewhere deep in this computer, would probably not reveal a whole lot specifically about the person sitting in front of it every day. The information contained would just be a dizzying array of terms and phrases that have no definable link, except for maybe “this person likes to look s*(@ up!”

Being so familiar with the ways this technology is used, I also understand a little bit about how it works. Plus, it helps having studied things like copyrights, open and public records, and data aggregation in college. I strongly believe in the right to privacy and the right to control potentially unique, identifying information related to privacy.

To see what’s out there – and in moments of boredom – I have done Internet searches for my name, phone number, and e-mail address. For you to do the same might yield some interesting results. And, in case you haven’t heard, managing this kind of information is big business these days. Services like “Reputation Defender” exist for the purpose of 1) removing your personal information from data aggregate websites and 2) burying pages containing your information deeper in the search engine results.

There is too much asked of us too often, and too much info is needlessly spread about. What happens to your information when a cashier swipes your ID, rather than manually inputting your birth date? Why has our society allowed for so many applications unrelated to income to require a social security number? Why must we disclose ethnicity on college applications, rather than admitting students, who are sight unseen, based on academics?

Look, to consider and be concerned about such topics doesn’t mean you live in a lead box and wear a tin-foil hat. There is some weird, unnecessary crap that goes on out there, and here are two of my personal examples that spring to mind: Back in 2003 or so, I received a letter from my university one day, urging 1,000+ of us students to sign up for a credit freeze/watch because an adviser had lost a PDA (remember those?) that contained our social security numbers. That sorta seemed to defeat the purpose of us having “university IDs.” Another weird happening was when I picked up my car from an auto shop way back when and realized that, sometime between dropping the vehicle off and picking it back up, a paycheck stub previously in the car was no longer there.

A professor once tipped us students off to the fact that, in Ohio, we could visit county auditor websites to see who owns which house, how much the person paid for the property, and how much is paid annually in property taxes. Aggregate sites like Zillow and Redfin essentially provide the same data. And now you can also see what your favorite actor’s backyard looks like via Google Maps. Knowledge drives business and, as we all know, knowledge = power.

Knowledge, or the appearance of possessing it, has also allowed some sketchy cottage industries to creep in the mix. Putting nearly any phone number in a search engine will bring up pages headlining “Free Reverse Lookup” and “Find out who is calling you? (sic)” My number brings up 6,750 results and numerous hits provide only enough information to show where in the country my phone is supposedly located (based on the prefix) and who my FORMER carrier was. Not much of a reverse lookup, eh?

What this analysis really boils down to is that we could all do a better job of managing our personal information. Some people don’t show any interest in doing so, but you can’t tell me there aren’t places in your life that are off-limits. What gets me are these people who say “I’m no criminal… I wouldn’t care if the police were watching me because I have nothing to hide.” Yeah right! Surveillance for no reason is probably a result of profiling. Otherwise, how would the surveyors pick and choose who to watch and who they think would be most likely to commit a crime? Realistically, everyone I’ve ever known who thought they’ve been profiled were mad as hell about it. We all have moments, as mundane as they may be, where we do something when we think no one is watching… moments where we would be embarrassed to find out someone WAS watching. It’s NOT OKAY!

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

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