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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.'"
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Don't Build a Database of Ruin

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  • 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".

  • 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 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 . . . ?

  • 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.

  • Re:Exploitation? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by epyT-R ( 613989 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @02:42AM (#41162659)

    yeah because you know, when cable tv showed up, it claimed zero ads on its premium non-movie channels.. now look at it.. tons of money and it's loaded with them.. You are purposely misconstruing the actions of advertisers.. if all they were doing was throwing up billboards, that's one thing.. active electronic surveillance of buying habits is COMPLETELY different.

  • 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.

  • Re:Exploitation? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @02:50AM (#41162701)

    I think of it more like this... a handful of organizations are aggregating everything there is to know about me. Between the sites I visit, the contents of my email and chats, my searches, my friends, family, coworkers, and acquaintences, what I buy or want to buy, things I read or watch, etc., maybe three companies have it all. Data storage is virtually free. Data collection mechanisms are simple and effective. Mountains of other data can be extrapolated from what they have, and these few companies are everywhere. And don't kid yourself that a browser plugin is hiding you effectively.

    Now imagine those two or three datasources are compromised at some point, either by hack or by purchase. There's something in there that would make it impossible for a person like you or me to, say, be elected to a public office. I'm not even be sure what mine is, but there's something in there. Maybe it's me talking to someone on a dating site, or something I said via IM, or adding a certain book to a wishlist and forgetting about it, or watching some YouTube video.

    Things are going to change at some point. We're either going to get a lot more liberal about what defines a person's character, or we're going to have to deal with data collection and security in a very different way. I don't know which, but either way it'll probably be a painful transition.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @02:54AM (#41162729)

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

  • 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 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.

  • by Fjandr ( 66656 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @06:11AM (#41163845) Homepage Journal

    The more you know about someone the easier it becomes to ruin them. Imagine a world where any sufficiently motivated extortionist could have their pick of targets. Eventually those extortionists would infiltrate whatever system was overseeing the information aggregation and, if it were not also the system controlling society, they would soon merge the two and run both.

    The scum who fit the mold for the flaws in a system always end up running said system, if there is any benefit to them to do so. The system in question just so happens to be one favoring extortionists. They are one of the worst types of scum to give a foothold to, and by virtue of human nature one of the hardest to get rid of, which is why the entire idea presented is so thoroughly disturbing.

  • 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...
  • 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.

  • by Anne Thwacks ( 531696 ) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 @07:37AM (#41164289)
    If you remember the 1950's - you will know it was not necessarily nice knowing that the store staff knew all your business - and could add salt and pepper to the truth knowing what would fly and what would not, and then pass it on. People rushed to supermarkets as soon as they opened to avoid this. Perhaps there is a lesson for someone here?
  • 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.

"I shall expect a chemical cure for psychopathic behavior by 10 A.M. tomorrow, or I'll have your guts for spaghetti." -- a comic panel by Cotham