The Devil Is In The … Database

In the digitized world we currently find ourselves living in , the old and somewhat hackneyed saying that “knowledge is power” has certainly never been more pertinent. Entire industries have sprung up with their business model based around the calculated use, and abuse no less, of knowledge. Undoubtedly the glut of information that humanity creates  by virtue of its day to day online existence (imagine how little the internet might have grown had news never been incorporated into it) has the potential to been utilised in many exciting ways to progress the trajectory of the human race. However there is also the potential for this information to be misused by those we entrust it too or those who have both the capability and capacity to take it illegally. I do not mean to sound overly alarmist in discussing this topic as there are plenty of writers on the internet who already do so. Although that being said I wish to draw the attentions of the reader towards the somewhat worrying behaviours of governments and private companies whose attitudes to the supposedly confidential nature of our private data are somewhat cavalier at best, wilfully criminal in the worst of cases.

The problem is not the existence of this data online in itself, if the internet consisted of just peoples birthdays with no other information or way of filtering information there would be no problem as it would be illegible. That however is not the case, instead there are all manner of places online that compete for our custom and also our data. social networkings sites, online shopping sites, in all likelihood if a website is on the internet then at some point you have either willingly given it your own personal data or it has captured data about you without any input, as such, on your part. Perhaps a prime of example of this would be Amazon’s “Todays Recommendations For You” feature which monitors what you look at on Amazon and then makes further suggestions based on this. In this instance data has been collected about you and is then used to be make suggestion for other similar products you might care to purchase alongside your original purchase. While this is a fairly innocuous feature on Amazons part it does mean that ultimately your interaction with the site in question is monitored and further this data collected despite you having given no consent for this to occur. I am not campaigning for an end to Amazon offering recommendations as I have found them at times to be highly useful , simply pointing out that often the collection of data about us is often hidden in plain sight and that we should remain mindful of this process going on.

I purposefully found the only list of recommended items  stranger than my own

I purposefully found the only list of recommended items stranger than my own for this image.

Another notable contemporary example of the use and as many would argue, abuse of our personal data is the recent case of Instagram, owned by the true social media giant Facebook,  who announced in the later stages of that year that there were some changes due to their terms of service which were jumped upon by many in the media and also many Instagram users who were concerned for the safety of their images. For a summary of the initial analysis which was ultimately off the mark see this guardian article. However as this article published later into the anti-Instagram frenzy points out in all reality the truth of the matter is that Instagram has always had loopholes which allow it  to use its user’s content, as the articles writer Nilay Patel summarises “Instagram has always had the right to use your photos in ads, almost any way it wants”. And as pointed out earlier in the article, another fact which speaks a great volume about how valued we are as living customers as opposed to living and breathing repositories of data to be used is that fact that Instagram need not actually alert users whose photographs have been co-opted by commercial users.

Watching and stealing your data (technically at least) since the day it was born

Watching and stealing your data (technically at least) since the day it was born.

Through those mentioned above and many similar collection techniques social media sites such as Facebook and twitter both build a succinct picture of who you are, what you like, how you speak, when you speak, what games you like and also collect some sensitive personal information along the way too such as date of birth or address you live at which techy minded Talking Head John Simeo points out is all the enterprising thief may need to work out things such as your social insurance number. An individual might feel they are fine with this amount of their data being collected in a central repository and I’m not here to argue that they are wrong. My point and the wider point of this post also is the potential for misuse of this information that we so willingly put out there for all to see. Our friends, lovers, enemies and spies all have potential access to this information which when combined with data currently held by my government and others around the world represents a fuller picture of myself than I would ever willingly give to anyone. In fact there is only power that humanity has really ever been comfortable giving that much knowledge of self too and that was God. Saviour though he might have been, according to many commonly held notions he is also the judge , one who will sit over you in final judgement.

In briefly mentioning governments aims for storing existing data and digitizing the data it holds in actuality on the population here in the UK above, I feel the need to highlight some recent government ideas and plans to illustrate for the reader how serious the government is about moving our data to a digital environment. In highlighting this I hope to demonstrate the amount of personal information that will eventually be held online about each individual, a large part of which we willing contribute to daily and make available for wide public consumption. If this data were to exist in a vacuum then there would be no intrinsic problem but reality teaches us to not be so foolish as crime also increasingly shifts to the digital environment. Further to this online exodus of talented criminals who will increasingly shift to hacking as their preferred vehicle for crimes as exotic as murder as this article points out . As well as the nature of crimes that people will be able to commit through hacking becoming more exotic than the bog standard identity theft of the past, an added issue is that with the world becoming increasingly digitized more and more people will potentially fall vulnerable to these attacks such as recently when a hacking of twitter affected 250,000 users . Another area of concern should be the nature of those who hold the more confidential data about us online, the data over which we have no control, the government. If history teaches us each one lesson and one lesson only, then I hope the lesson it has imparted to my readers is that our trust for those who we have deemed suitable to govern us should be ephemeral at best and subject to continuing scrutiny lest they fail to fulfil their promises upon which they glided to power.

Not the face of a man most trust to keep even the most simple of promises

This is NOT the face of a man I would trust to look after my grandmother’s shopping

Amongst the more notable and arguably worrying measures that involve digitizing government held confidential data, and using this to monitor/reward/punish the population that Messrs Clegg and Cameron have proclaimed from on high include the following ideas:

  • In recently published proposals, a Conservative council and think-tank,  not the UK government as some initially reported, suggested that obese and unhealthy people should be monitored to check whether they are taking regular exercise and further to this that these same people might have their various benefits, not strictly tied to health, cut if deemed to be taking insufficient exercise. That this social engineering policy is even being discussed at an official meeting rather than a stand-up comedy show speaks volumes about how emboldened the UK government are by their increasing ability to access the data of every aspect of the citizenships life in one way or another. The proposed idea is so harsh that it is a little terrifying, the amount of exercise in this hypothetical situation is not only deciding how much in the way of health benefits an individual can access but also determines the amount of housing benefit they can access as well, housing benefit usually being decided in the sane world by annual wage and days taken sick per year as opposed to more zany statistics like resting heartbeat and number of laps completed at nearest Olympic length swimming pool. I may sound glib or needlessly worried in commenting on this but I fundamentally believe in the inalienable right of the population for support from government when the individual struggles to support themselves in times of trouble and I would seriously question any who tried to make the receipt of  such aid from the state dependent on a measure as arbitrary as exercise levels.
  • The third and final wacky UK government policy I wish to highlight to demonstrate the use and abuse of data is the planned changes to communications law that would enable the government to effectively monitor private communications, putting the UK, one of the founding places of many democratic ideals on par with many of the worlds worst and most intrusive regimes. For a summary of the proposed changes to the law check here and here . My main argument against this unwarranted access to private data is that it goes some way towards reducing the importance of the ideal of every man being innocent until proven guilty by making every communication suspect and worthy of scrutiny. the proffered reasons for these changes according to the UK government are reasons of “National Security”, and what worries me more than this reference to a somewhat hollow notion is the amount of otherwise intelligent people I have heard willing to accept the governments erosion of their rights for the illusion of safety. Ben Franklin summarised my feelings on listening to these people perfectly when he said ” Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety “.

In Conclusion I am not advocating that people begin an anti digital exodus, to do so would be to cut ourselves off from the fabric of modern society, simply that people consider deeply the level of private information that they put out there and whether it really is necessary. Further to this I would ask that all readers who feel similar concerns about their data falling into the hands of governments who have no right to access it should research in great detail those they plan to vote for’s policies regarding the safety of our data and vote based on that. We can see already that governments are entertaining the idea of using our data to monitor and in some ways control us so it is the utmost requirement of those capable too make sure  that elected leaders are people we can trust to hold the data safer than even we ourselves could. Otherwise when right wing death squads come for you at three in the morning because they know your always offline at three in the morning for your three o clock shit which you told someone about on twitter once you’ll be sorry you didn’t listen.


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