Follow Slashdot stories on Twitter


Forgot your password?
Privacy Your Rights Online

Don't Build a Database of Ruin 209

Hugh Pickens writes "Paul Ohm writes in Harvard Business Review that businesses today are building perfect digital dossiers of their customers, massive data stores containing thousands of facts about every member of our society. He says these databases will grow to connect every individual to at least one closely guarded secret. 'This might be a secret about a medical condition, family history, or personal preference. It is a secret that, if revealed, would cause more than embarrassment or shame; it would lead to serious, concrete, devastating harm,' writes Ohm. 'And these companies are combining their data stores, which will give rise to a single, massive database. I call this the Database of Ruin. Once we have created this database, it is unlikely we will ever be able to tear it apart.' Consider the most famous recent example of big data's utility in invading personal privacy: Target's analytics team can determine which shoppers are pregnant, and even predict their delivery dates, by detecting subtle shifts in purchasing habits. 'In the absence of intervention, soon companies will know things about us that we do not even know about ourselves. This is the exciting possibility of Big Data, but for privacy, it is a recipe for disaster.' According to Ohm, if we stick to our current path, the Database of Ruin will become an inevitable fixture of our future landscape, one that will be littered with lives ruined by the exploitation of data assembled for profit. The only way we avoid this is if companies learn to say, 'no' to some of the privacy-invading innovations they're pursuing. 'The lesson is plain: compete vigorously and beat your competitors in every legitimate way, except when it comes to privacy invasion. Too many companies have learned this lesson the hard way, launching invasive new services that have triggered class action lawsuits, Congressional inquiries, and media firestorms.'"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Don't Build a Database of Ruin

Comments Filter:
  • by ozmanjusri ( 601766 ) <aussie_bob@[ ] ['hot' in gap]> on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @02:10AM (#41162451) Journal

    According to Ohm, if we stick to our current path, the Database of Ruin will become an inevitable fixture of our future landscape, one that will be littered with lives ruined by the exploitation of data assembled for profit.

    No doubt, but what we need is a path forward that avoids the pitfalls of ubiquitous databases while retaining the benefits.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @02:17AM (#41162491)

      Did Ohm meet Resistance?


    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Why hide? If you have something to hide then you shouldn't have done it in the first place.

    • No doubt, but what we need is a path forward that avoids the pitfalls of ubiquitous databases while retaining the benefits.

      Do you have an idea for how to attain this?

      • by lister king of smeg ( 2481612 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @02:34AM (#41162597)

        spill everyones secrets at once so we all look dirty and would be hypocrites for judging anyone else. then any demagogue can have all of his problems pointed out by the opposition so he has no power either. When everyone knows your dirty secret it has lost its power because you also know theirs.

        • Inevitably some people would look dirtier than others. And as soon as that happens, we can find ways to discriminate against those who are worse than us.

          My own personal solution is to not give a shit. You know that I have baboons living in my kitchen? So what.
          • It's not so much that you have baboons in your kitchen, or even that you fondle them. But with fetuses scavenged from civil war victims? You disgust me.

            Stupid jokes aside, not giving a shit is compelling, but it's a tall order, and one we have to do all at once for it to be effective. At least the idea of airing all of our dirty laundry at once gets us on that path (though I'd much favor putting the genie back in its bottle).

            I think the lesson is that we're going to be hard pressed to find answers without c

            • by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @03:22AM (#41162907) Journal

              Stupid jokes aside, not giving a shit is compelling, but it's a tall order, and one we have to do all at once for it to be effective

              Nah, it's definitely something that makes you feel better as soon as you do it. Try it. You'll feel better.

              • The hard part is getting the emotional part of your brain to join the rational brain.

                Much easier said than done *sigh*

                • whoosh... he was joking about taking a shit bro / broette
                • True, true. One thing that can help is to turn things into a joke. Even if it ends up being a stupid joke, when you're feeling uncomfortable, make a joke and your emotional part feels better.
            • but to fix the problem we need an entire society that doesnt give a shit. the dilemma is that this society still has to give a shit about laws and also create them based on peoples' behavior. it is a bit of a paradox
          • by Genda ( 560240 )

            Heck with the kitchen, I know a city chock full of baboons, its a little district near Maryland.

            • Heck with the kitchen, I know a city chock full of baboons, its a little district near Maryland.

              A little district, but you will enjoy its presumption and its powerful bouquet.


              Never look a baboon in the face; they take it as aggression.

            • Heck with the kitchen, I know a city chock full of baboons, its a little district near Maryland.

              They painted their faces with woad, and you fell for it.

          • by demonlapin ( 527802 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @06:59AM (#41164095) Homepage Journal
            The problem is that certain jobs - hell some entire fields, like health care - do care about what you've done in the past, and will actively discriminate against you. That's not a problem if you're, say, fifteen, because you don't have a real job yet, and you can steer yourself toward other things. Not so great if you're in your forties or fifties and trying to save for some hint of retirement. Plus, every life insurance, etc., form I've ever seen has a box that says "have you ever used an illegal drug?" Canceling seventy percent of America's cheap term life policies could be a problem...
        • by Phreakiture ( 547094 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @10:14AM (#41166235) Homepage

          I think that most of the things people hide are things about their sex lives.

          Dr. House has the rule that everyone lies. I have my own rule, which is this: Everyone is a pervert. There are no exceptions. The only differences between us are what kind of pervert we are and whether or not we keep it under wraps.

          The Database Of Ruin[TM] will reveal what kind of pervert everyone is. As a result, we can all come out of the closet. While ultimately this has some potential to be a Good Thing [TM], the destruction that will be caused in the short term is too terrible to contemplate.

        • We are running this experiment now and the results aren't good.

          We force greater and greater disclosure, to the point of being punitive, on politicians, so they only ones who become politicians are ones who don't care about their privacy. And so when they pass laws they pass ones that have no respect for privacy either.

          There are a lot of important reasons for sunshine laws, but seriously, releasing your tax returns???

        • Soon, the only people electable for office will be hermit Luddites.

      • Prove beyond any doubt that targeted advertisement is annoying, creepy and extremely counterproductive??
        • Sure because untargeted advertising is vastly preferable.

          I don't have any dirty little secrets waiting to be aired - or at least, none worse than would appear for most other people if such a database got into public hands.

    • by bcg ( 322392 )
      According to Ohm, current through a conductor between two points is directly proportional to the potential difference across the two points.
    • by mianne ( 965568 )

      And how do you propose building such a firewall within the same database?

      A hammer can build a house--or tear it apart. A fire can spur life, save life, or destroy life. Nuclear fission can supply massive amounts of energy, or it can destroy everything in its path. We can't do away with hammers, fires, or nuclear energy, it would be devastating to society, moreover there's no putting those genies back in the bottle. What we can do with the first two items is punish those who act with malice through vandalism

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @02:16AM (#41162481)

    I, Anomalous Coward, I am involved in a sexual relationship with a goldfish.

    Basically, if I can make up enough too-crazy-to-be-true BS and post it all over the internet, nobody will know how much I am attracted to giraffes.


  • Correction (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MacroRodent ( 1478749 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @02:19AM (#41162503)
    >Too many companies have learned this lesson the hard way, launching invasive new services that have triggered class action lawsuits, Congressional inquiries, and media firestorms.

    Shouldn't that read "Too few companies have learned ..."? Otherwise the problem would not exist.

    Anyway, I think this can only be fixed by legislation. Companies have too much monetary incentive for privacy violation to do anything else than token improvements. "Industry self-regulation" is nothing but newspeak for "foxes guarding the henhouse".

  • All the time here people are drivelling on about the "privacy violations" of shopping in a big chain store and paying for it with their credit card which lets the stores build up a picture of their buying habits.

    I suppose these are also the same people I see wandering around the streets in stained clothing screaming "STOP LOOKING AT ME! STOP LOOKING AT ME!" to nobody that the rest of us can see.

    • Levels of "public" (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Errol backfiring ( 1280012 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @07:30AM (#41164257) Journal

      There are different levels of the word "public". You can look through my windows and see the interior. So that view is "public". Any burglar who wants to break in would have to come to my house and look inside to see if there is anything of value. If the same view is visible on Google Streetview, it is by far more public. Burglars can monitor thousands of addresses from their own home, without being seen themselves. This is why harvesting public data can be enormously evil.

      The ability to pay anonymously is getting less and less by day. In Europe, it is not yet that bad that you are seen as a terrorist if you pay cash, but there are far too many places where you have to pay, but real money is not accepted. So you may think people are stupid if they pay with a credit card, but often there isn't even a choice.

  • Orwell was wrong. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by SuricouRaven ( 1897204 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @02:28AM (#41162555)
    He missed a vital element when writing 1984. Looking at the oppressive governments of the time and the rise of extensive government monitoring, it was easy to imagine governments of the future would be able to take it to an extreme. He completly failed to see the rising power and influence of commercial interests, motivated not by power but by money.
    • by epyT-R ( 613989 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @02:46AM (#41162677)

      no he wasn't. In his future, the difference between the state and the corporation was zero. We're damned close to that now where one passes the puck to the other to get over some legal or functional limitation the other isn't limited by. When it's done, the puck gets passed back.

      • no he wasn't. In his future, the difference between the state and the corporation was zero. We're damned close to that now where one passes the puck to the other to get over some legal or functional limitation the other isn't limited by. When it's done, the puck gets passed back.

        I dunno, but that sounds kinda Canadian, eh?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      People don't even care. And sadly actively participate in their own destruction.

    • Re:Orwell was wrong. (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Johann Lau ( 1040920 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @06:04AM (#41163791) Homepage Journal

      Holy fuck how did this get modded up? As someone else said already, money IS (one form of) power.

      To me, Nineteen-Eightyfour is first and foremost about language that deceives and cripples critical thought, not about televisors and war with Eurasia. Those things have been made possible by the actual subject matter of the book, namely the obstruction of the ability to say 2 and 2 make 4. But don't feel bad, most people seem to miss that.

    • The government just lets the private companies do the hard work. When they need some info on someone, they just sub-poena google or facebook and they know all about you, what you like, your habits, etc...
  • by PolygamousRanchKid ( 1290638 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @02:31AM (#41162583)

    . . . than how come I am not interested in any of those products that Amazon tells me should interest me?

    Maybe there is something wrong with me?

    Maybe not conforming to their purchase expectations is a sign of criminal activity . . . ?

    • More realistically my entire familly uses the computer in the living room, that is two children and two adults, baby can't use the computer yet. So no I'm not interested in Dora the explorer or Fireman Sam.
      • don't worry, machine learning algorithms know the difference between the persons.
        I'm sure by now they know there are two children and two adults, who is a boy or a girl, and all their likes, dislikes and habits.
        Actually, they probably know there's a baby as well ;-)
    • by engun ( 1234934 )
      Amazon only has access to a certain restricted aspect of your social life - your purchase preferences for certain internet goods. But if Amazon's info could be combined with facebook's database, your location information from google maps, your browsing history from your ISP, your supermarket profile, your movie preferences, your medical history etc. etc. (basically, the Database of Ruin the author is talking about) and I'd wager those Amazon recommendations are going to be a whole lot more accurate.
      • by DarkOx ( 621550 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @06:03AM (#41163783) Journal

        That is a really important element here, I think you have nailed. Its not a big deal that Amazon or Target can guess you are pregnant from the products you buy.

        So could they guy running the general store in your small 18th and early 19th century town. It was the only place you had to go for goods and his list of customers was short enough he could pay attention to everyone's specific needs, which he did so he knew what products to order / stock. He also knew allot about you regardless of how much or little your spoke to each other because of what you bought and how often. It was only a brief period human history late 19th thru 20th century that our economic options for providers grew faster than our ability to collect and correlate information about individuals.

        The issue do we need to address / control what information entities are allowed to exchange with each other. Target knows my buying habits, I shop there. That is sorta implicit in the activity. Should there be rules about them selling / giving / exchanging information with other entities be they corporate, government, individuals? Knowing my buying habits at Target and having access to the other sources you mention paints a much more compete picture of my life and destroys my ability to protect my privacy. Where if there was some product I needed that I was really really embarrassed about before for example I had the option of driving across town and making a single purchase at some other vendor.

    • *somewhat-whoosh-but-not-really*
      That it is not accurate for you is half of the point. The people / processes that rely on that data will insist that it is perfect.

      I can call the police and fabricate an accusation of rape against you. With any form of evidence, they can and will arrest you. When my rouse is discovered, the charges will be dismissed immediately, and I'll be in trouble, blah blah blah... but meanwhile, YOUR arrest record will be entered into the local and national databases as a felony/sex/

  • by geekd ( 14774 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @02:37AM (#41162619) Homepage

    Pay in Cash, don't use store discount cards. Don't let "them" tie the purchase to you. Problem solved.

    Or, take the discount, pay with your convenient credit card, and don't give a crap what they think they know about you.

    Your choice.

    • There's a subtle but definite trend by governments to paint cash as the currency of criminals.

      Like the 'war on terror', the 'war on cash' always cites some form of morality as its justification. In the UK we recently had a political storm [] about cash payments to tradespeople being 'morally wrong'.

      It's clear to my mind that this position goes beyond tax-collection benefits, and moves into the realm of ensuring all financial transactions fall into the uniquely-identifiable big-data indexable kind for jus
      • There's a subtle but definite trend by governments to paint cash as the currency of criminals.

        It may be a lot of things, but subtle it ain't. At least in the US.

        In some areas of the US if you are pulled over for a routine traffic stop and they find cash over anywhere from $100 on up (there are typically no specific amounts specified), you may well end up having your cash confiscated and perhaps also your vehicle, and possibly be arrested as well.

        Many times in these situations, even if you've broken no laws you may end up losing your cash/property thanks to US laws and policies regarding criminal for

    • Re:Pay Cash (Score:4, Funny)

      by girlintraining ( 1395911 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @05:23AM (#41163551)

      Did you drive a car to the store?
      ANPR cameras now have your plate number.
      Buy cigarettes, liquor... or ever been sick (cold medication is now a restricted substance)?
      A little mag strip on the back contains everything listed on your driver's license.
      Ever want to make a purchase over about $500?
      You'll need to pay with something other than cash... and all those other somethings have your name on it.
      Ever order anything through the mail?
      Post office now keeps permanent records of the to/from addresses, package size, and description.
      Did you ever live anywhere other than a cardboard box or your parent's?
      You had to submit to a credit and background check.
      Ever owned a cell phone, signed up for internet access, or needed, say, electricity?
      Yeah. more information on your credit report. Bonus: Your internet habits, electricity usage, and where you live can tell me loads about you. I can buy a report on all of those for less than $5.

      The list goes on. And on. And on. You can't simply unplug and walk away. Sooner or later, someone's gonna have something you want -- and chances are good they'll record that transaction in a computer. Which goes to a database. Which becomes part of other databases. It's like rain -- eventually, all the water runs to the river, and the river to the ocean. The problem is not that the information is being collected... it's how it is being used. And let's be honest: The only way you're going to get your personal data back under your control is over their dead body.

      On an unrelated note; Aren't we a bit overdue for storming the castle and killing rich people? You know, for oppressing us? Whelp, better go find a ringtone to match my unique and dynamic personality for only $0.99!

    • Use the store discount cards but lie liberally on the application form. Don't give them your real name or address or anything else that's real. Problem solved. The discount cards are the only way to get a decent price at many grocery stores now.

  • by enoz ( 1181117 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @02:39AM (#41162635)

    Calling for commercial organisations to stop profiling their customers is about as worthwhile as asking a four year old not to eat that marshmallow you just placed in front of them.

    The problem is Joe Average is just too willing to give up their information for the smallest of perks, be it filling out a personal survey to win an iProduct, or swiping their supermarket member card at every transaction to save a few percent.

  • The crash... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Genda ( 560240 ) <> on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @03:12AM (#41162849) Journal

    Of human culture colliding with human technology. As long as we continue to honor our lowest primate drives, then the amplifying effect of technology will generate results with greater and greater negative impact. The good news, is that such circumstances would be unsustainable, precisely because they would be socially unacceptable. At some point human beings will communicate at the speed of thought through imbedded technology. Secrets will become passe even impossible. Humanity will have to evolve into a species that is capable with dealing in absolute truth, and it will not be a society any of us recognize today.

  • by Sarusa ( 104047 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @04:14AM (#41163199)

    Realistically, you have to look at a Wal-mart or a Bank of America or a Progressive and ask 'Are they really going to hold back on egregious privacy violations just because it's icky?'

    The answer, of course, is hell no. As Corporate People they're rapacious sociopaths who'd happily burn puppies or African orphans to death for a few extra cents of shareholder value. There is no possible appeal to ethics here, the best you could do is appeal to possible corporate black eye that would outweigh the profit. Which I don't see.

    And then of course there's Homeland Security with their Spy on Everyone Echelon type initiatives and fat pipes right from the heart of every telecom company.

    Your Database of Ruin already exists somewhere(s). You've just got to assume it does and figure out how you deal with that.

  • by bigmammoth ( 526309 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @04:58AM (#41163441) Homepage
    I think we already seeing the initial phases of this. Non-totalitarian societies will adjust and normalize to be more accepting of digressions, and otherwise damaging historic and contemporaneous behavior which will be more transparent for more and more people. What seems like absurd levels of privacy violation today / yesterday, will be taken for granted in the future / present.

    To the extent of increased personal hardship from these databases; in non-totalitarian societies its unlikely to result in significant transition towards worse ( or better ) treatment of people outside social and political norms. People outside social norms have been "abused" in small circles for ages; in a larger more "anonymous" society the abuse is built into other layers of the social fabric ( id cards; state oppression etc ); Not to say all circles are created equal; but techno-deterministic dystopianism is a false premise. Technological social changes are bound to the societies in which they take place.

    Within "our" global "democratic" "free market" capitalism context the macro implications of concentrated power being able to better micro manage public opinion with powerful tools for life pattern recognition models; may be more problematic then direct loss of privacy abuses that the article outlines. That is to say; all our search for "personal" connections with others may be easier to be mediated. i.e an online video chat "hang out" support group which is moderated by an inquisitive supportive digital agent. That in addition to connecting us to exactly who we needed to talk to and giving us heart felt sense of well being in the short term; is simultaneously creating voids in meaningful existence by commoditizing your values towards particular life style choices, entertaining distractions, and consumption habits that don't enable a sustainable social structure.

    Where by every piece of information we look for and every social connection we make is mediated towards these "a-political" life style choices bounding political discourse and participation making it impossible to regulate such abuses enabling increasing concentration of power etc.; there-by creating a vicious cycle in which our autonomy is transformed even more dramatically then in the previous century of mass media consumption.

    ... But this is far from pre-determined, and these crude statistical models geared toward increased consumption of tomorrow; may in the near future give way to more holistic pictures of who we are with the disposal of much more computational resources and vastly more connected data about our increasing transparent existence. Independently of a slide towards totalitarianism; these databases and cognitive pattern recognition systems; could just as well support connections and social bridging of a cornucopia of personal identities; histories with digressions; and everything in between. If we expand access to build these system with human values we wish to amplify; it could just as well increase "freedom" "autonomy" and sustainable"well being" among the techo-societies participants.
  • by markdavis ( 642305 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @07:41AM (#41164317)

    Even worse is when this "database of ruin" makes FALSE categorizations/predictions about an individual and then treats them as such. It already happens.

    Welcome to the future- guilty without proof, guilty until proven innocent, guilty without due process, guilty by association, guilty without even knowing it.

    • by geekoid ( 135745 )

      No, it's a future of people realizing the data is useless. Just like we're moving to a future where no one will care what stupid shit you posted on facebook.

  • by Greyfox ( 87712 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @09:57AM (#41165935) Homepage Journal
    Heaven forbid we find out that we ALL have an asshole, no matter what our social or economic status. Maybe once we realize that we all have an asshole, everyone will stop being so ashamed of theirs.
  • he doesn't dwell on the large mistakes these analytics make.

  • The accumulation of all information about everybody and everything is unavoidable, so, society will evolve into one of two paths: either a paranoid dystopia where a secret elite controls everybody through fear, and all production of goods and services are controlled by the corporations, or it evolves into a society of free individuals who empowered by technology and social awareness become economically independent and free of the social pressures caused by obsolete ways of thinking. These new free people wi
  • I can't help but believe that many individuals will set themselves up in business offering software, hardware, services and advice to people to help them confound the data-keepers.

    Can't believe it's not already the plot of a hundred Sci-Fi novels

  • ... presumably, this leaves us to deduce that in the database server room we would find the racks of ruin.
  • ... how someone's knowing some dark secret about my past will influence my decision making process. Your product sucks. So you have pictures of me naked at a party. Your product still sucks. BTW, that's your wife blowing me.

    Its interesting to note just how inaccurate some of these databases are. I challenged a friend of mine in the private detective biz to do a background check on me. They have addresses for me that I've never lived at. They are missing some important information about me, including under

  • Between Facebook, Google and the NSA this database already exists.

"Conversion, fastidious Goddess, loves blood better than brick, and feasts most subtly on the human will." -- Virginia Woolf, "Mrs. Dalloway"