Have you ever experienced the panicked feeling that comes from dreaming that you were naked and exposed in some public place like the town square? I have, and I have heard from others who say they have too. I’m sure many a psychiatrist has been able to pay for a yacht or put braces on his children’s teeth by interpreting such dreams, usually by making such clever observations as “You feel exposed.” Well, the field of psychiatry may soon experience a rennaisance, because a lot more of us are destined to “feel exposed” due to what I choose to think of as the dark side of connectivity.
From the time the first cave man decided to draw pictures on the wall of his cave, we have left revealing evidence that succeeding generations could discover and interpret. But in this connected age, that evidence has become both more profuse and more persistent. Not only do we reveal our thoughts and feelings in blogs like this one, but we also leave digital footprints as we pass through this life — footprints of where we were when, of how we squandered our wealth, and of who was a part of our social network. By our Internet postings in blogs, on forums, on web pages, and in email, and because of the digital trail of our financial dealings, we voluntarily and involuntarily relinquish any claim we may have ever had to privacy.
Michelle Conlin has said, “There is no such thing as an eraser on the Internet.” Even email that is recalled inside a corporation’s email system is often read before it can be recalled. And once an email is sent, it is backed up not just on the recipient’s system where it was sent but also in the backups that are produced on the systems that transmit it along the way.
A fascinating article in today’s New Scientist Technology, titled “Pentagon sets its sights on social networking websites,” details the government’s interest in mining the information that we are supplying about ourselves at a dizzying rate.
“You should always assume anything you write online is stapled to your resumé. People don’t realise you get Googled just to get a job interview these days,” says Callas.
The Callas referred to above is Jon Callas, chief security officer at PGP, a Sillicon Valley-based maker of encryption software. He also says in that article, “I AM continually shocked and appalled at the details people voluntarily post online about themselves.” As innocent as it seems to list your friends on a service like a Friend of a Friend there are government entities that are interested in that information, all in the name of security.
No plan to mine social networks via the semantic web has been announced by the NSA, but its interest in the technology is evident in a funding footnote to a research paper delivered at the W3C’s WWW2006 conference in Edinburgh, UK, in late May.
That paper, entitled Semantic Analytics on Social Networks, by a research team led by Amit Sheth of the University of Georgia in Athens and Anupam Joshi of the University of Maryland in Baltimore reveals how data from online social networks and other databases can be combined to uncover facts about people. The footnote said the work was part-funded by an organisation called ARDA.
What is ARDA? It stands for Advanced Research Development Activity. According to a report entitled Data Mining and Homeland Security, published by the Congressional Research Service in January, ARDA’s role is to spend NSA money on research that can “solve some of the most critical problems facing the US intelligence community”. Chief among ARDA’s aims is to make sense of the massive amounts of data the NSA collects – some of its sources grow by around 4 million gigabytes a month.
I love the Internet, but there was a sleepy time in the distant past when what you did and how you chose to live your life only faced the threat of a nosey neighbor or a town gossip. Today, it’s a lot easier for people to be nosey, and in our innocence or naivete many of us are cooperating with them by voluntarily relinquishing our privacy.
A generation raised with world-wide connectivity and the social networks that fosters will never know what privacy is … or rather what it was, since for all intents and purposes, privacy no longer exists.
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