The Desegregation of Privacy Issues: Closing the Privacy Gap?

By Terry Calhoun

Was North Korea’s underground explosion even nuclear? If so, many experts are saying that it was either a partial success or a partial failure, in technical terms. Years ago, maybe even a few years ago, we’d have had North Korea’s claims as the sole data to analyze. Now, any size of underground shaking is identified and measured. Nowadays, however:

“It’s pretty remarkable that such a small explosion was promptly apparent on seismometers all over the world,” said Paul Richards, a seismologist at Columbia University‘s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, NY. “The detection of this was really good. You can’t hide these kinds of things, even very small tests.” (Full Article)

There are lots of things that “you can’t hide” anymore. Consumers have experienced this as many institutions, including colleges and universities, have leaked “personal data” in hundreds of reported instances. At Ohio University, such leaks have been a significant part of a crisis of reputation that has resulted in loss of institutional prestige and a number of firings. (Although two IT staffers have recently won grievances asserting they were unfairly fired and had nothing to do with the security issues.

Databases are leaking right and left because data isn’t useful unless we can connect it to other data. But connections leak. Contributing to the loss of personal privacy is the lack of systems thinking that extends outside of a single enterprise and, in more instances than it should d'esn’t even extend to the inside perimeter of institutions.

My family has experienced credit card “identity theft” several times. It’s a hassle, but nothing like the hassles experienced by friends who have had their “checkbook identity” stolen. To be frank, using “identity theft” to describe the loss or theft of important but small pieces of “identity” is probably a nomenclature mistake. The term should be restricted to instances where many parts of an identity are stolen and misrepresented.

We all know, now, to Google job applicants to determine the frankness and veracity of resume information, even to go into Facebook and MySpace and check out their representations there.

Although I think and read about it regularly, I won’t claim to have a clue how these privacy and identity issues will be resolved for individual humans, the ones originally noted as having “rights” in the U.S. Constitution. It d'es make the squirming of celebrities, who trade their privacy for fame and then whine about it, seem more and more childish, given that we all suffer privacy impositions.

Even though it was explained to me several times in law school, I have always wondered why corporations have so many of the Constitutional rights that individual humans have. Over time, I’ve had a perception of a “privacy divide,” or “privacy segregation,” where people are losing privacy even as institutions gain complexity and the ability to hide more from us.

However, the growing revelation that our cultural institutions such as government and corporations are losing their “privacy” is heartening. Some of the first indications include the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was intended to provide more transparency deeper into the inner workings of corporations. Some smaller businesses complain that complying with Sarbanes-Oxley costs them money. Tough. Get used to it.

You are probably familiar with at least the existence of the LEED rating system of buildings, whereby the U.S. Green Building Council certifies the “greenness” of new buildings on a scale that includes silver, gold, and platinum rating designations.

Last week I was at Arizona State University for the first annual meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). There, while over 700 attendees enjoyed various sessions, one small task force presented some ideas to an enthusiastic room of 60+ people who think that a rating system for the sustainability of campuses might also be a fine idea. (Not an assessment, nor a ranking system, but a rating system.)

No need for details here, but the one part of the AASHE task force recommendation that jarred me a bit was that this new rating system might not have its ratings certified by a third party. Instead, it is proposed that colleges and universities that wish to be rated will be able to complete an online form and be assigned a rating instantly. The system would, in this draft form at least, depend on transparency. No credentialed third part will be checking the facts. Instead, the system will rely on the public.

That was hard for me to choke down, but then I thought a bit on some of the news items I’ve been finding for IT Trends lately, and I decided it most probably will work.

You might think that top officials at a big company like Hewlett-Packard could safely hire private agencies to investigate each other without it becoming open public knowledge. That wasn’t the case. And it’s more and more less the case, especially with the Internet operating so well.

The Republican Party is discovering this as it disintegrates due to a cover-up that was instigated by years-old e-mails and instant messages. Just like the kids on MySpace, adults using the Internet have to worry about how transparent the things they do are, and how easily they can end up where you don’t want them to. Many people weren’t paying attention while it was just lying about dollars and war, but when sex entered the picture, we started paying attention. It became obvious to many more that the pattern was the same everywhere. We’re going to enjoy more of this, and the transparency will not limit itself to a single political party.

When I was young, we maybe heard that there had been a hurricane in Florida a week or so afterwards. Now the explosion of information and communications technology puts us right there, in the middle of the details. Can you imagine what and when the public at large would have known about Katrina if she had struck in the early 1950s? I can imagine. The answers are, “not very much,” and “months later.”

Is the glass half full or half empty? Is it “loss of privacy” or creation of “transparency.” It might not matter. It may be that we have to cope and that is inevitable, no matter what we call it. As a Baby Boomer who grew up in different times, this makes me uncomfortable, but I wonder how much it will bother the children of our Millennial Generation?

Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently spoke of a coming aspect of this transparency that thrills me:

He predicted that “truth predictor” software would, within five years, “hold politicians to account.” People would be able to use programs to check seemingly factual statements against historical data to see to see if they were correct.

“One of my messages to them (politicians) is to think about having every one of your voters online all the time, then inputting ‘is this true or false.’ We (at Google) are not in charge of truth but we might be able to give a probability,” he told the newspaper.

Are we closing the “privacy gap” by bringing about the end of privacy and the beginning of ubiquitous transparency? I kind of like the thought. Bring it on, this can’t come too soon. To those who don’t like it, I have to say, “Tough. Get used to it.”

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