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2/2/2010
02:30 PM
Curt Monash
Curt Monash
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Database Snooping Threatens Liberty - And We're All Making Matters Worse

Every year or two, I get back on my soapbox to say: database and analytic technology, as they evolve, will pose tremendous danger to individual liberties... This time I don't plan to be so quick to shut up.

Every year or two, I get back on my soapbox to say:

  • Database and analytic technology, as they evolve, will pose tremendous danger to individual liberties.
  • We in the industry who are creating this problem also have a duty to help fix it.
  • Technological solutions alone won't suffice. Legal changes are needed.
  • The core of the needed legal changes are tight restrictions on governmental use of data, because relying on restrictions about data acquisition and retention clearly won't suffice.
But this time I don't plan to be so quick to shut up.My best writing about the subject of liberty to date is probably in a November, 2008 blog post. My best public speaking about the subject was undoubtedly last Thursday, early in my New England Database Summit keynote address; I got a lot of favorable feedback on that part from the academics and technologists in attendance.

My emphasis is on data-based snooping rather than censorship, for several reasons:

  • My work and audience are mainly in the database and analytics sectors. Censorship is more a concern for security, networking, and internet-technology folks.
  • After censorship, I think data-based snooping is the second-worst technological threat to liberty.
  • In the US and other fairly free countries, data-based snooping may well be the #1 threat.
Below are the actual notes I spoke from. (Not typed out in the notes is the part about how I think there are a lot of precedents in US law for my suggestions, specifically in how the Fourth and Fifth Amendments are handled, but you can find that part in the blog linked above.) My call to action is still pretty vague, along the lines of "Think about this stuff, and talk about it too." (And please don't be as pig-headed as the Slashdotters mentioned here.) Beyond that, simpler and more immediate - well, this is one blog post I'm REALLY hoping will get a rich comment thread. Please pitch in!

My notes, with minor edits for blog-posting clarity:

  • Tremendous amounts of information are being or can be electronically recorded about everybody
    • All our credit card purchases
    • All our web access activity
      • For at least two different reasons -- child porn and internet file sharing -- governments around the world are finding reasons to mandate that this be stored...
      • ...even as governments also sometimes try to mandate that it be deleted
    • All our email and other internet communication information, either in full content or at least from a traffic analysis standpoint
      • Many of our movements
      • Electronic tollbooths
      • Location-aware mobile devices
      • Police cameras
      • I doubt much of this is retained today except the camera part, but it could be
    • And by the way, it is not illegal in the US for the government to put cameras or other electronic sensors outside your house to peer in, which offers all sorts of other intrusive possibilities as that technology improves.
  • Analysis tools are improving in steps
    • Data mining
    • Social graph analysis
  • If misused, this technology is an enormous threat to liberty...
    • ...and we're all complicit in it (because we help advance the technology).
  • So it's our duty to also work to forestall the threat.
  • Unfortunately, most technological solutions have no hope of working
    • The data WILL be retained.
    • The data WILL be possible to correlate and de-anonymize.
    • Any technology that purports otherwise is merely a stopgap at best
      • But that doesn't meant such stopgap technology isn't worth developing and deploying
  • The only realistic long-term solution is legal, which is to say political
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