Alessandro Acquisti’s TED talk, Why Privacy Matters.lays out some key privacy issues and revealing research of what is possible with online data In one project they were able to locate student identities via face recognition in the few minutes needed to fill out a survey …. and potentially locate their Facebook page using that search. In a second project they were able to deduce persons social security numbers (a key U.S. personal identifier) from their Facebook page data. This opens the possibility that any image of you can lead to both identifying you, and also locating significant private information about you.
There is a parallel discussion sponsored by the IEEE Standards Association on “The Right to be Forgotten“. This was triggered by a recent European court case where an individual did not want information about his past to be discoverable via search engines. These two concepts collide when an individual seeking to be “forgotten” has their image captured by any range of sources (store cameras, friends posting photos, even just being “in the picture” that someone else is taking.) If that can be translated into diverse personal information, then even the efforts of the search engine providers to block the searches will be futile.
Alessandro identifies some tools that can help: The Electronic Freedom Foundation’s anonymous internet portal, and Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) which can deliver a level of encryption that is very expensive to crack, with variations being adopted by Google, Yahoo and maybe even Apple to protect the content of their devices and email exchanges. There are issues with the PGP model and perhaps some better approaches. There is also government push back against too strong of encryption — which is perhaps one of the best endorsements for the capability of such systems.
Behind all this is the real question of how seriously we choose to protect our privacy. It is a concept given greater consideration in Europe than in the U.S. — perhaps because the deeper European history has proven that abuse by governments or other entities can be horrific — an experience that has not engaged the “Youth of America”, nor discouraged the advertising/commercial driven culture that dominates the Internet.
Alessandro observes that an informed public that understands the potential issues is a critical step towards developing policy, tools and the discipline needed to climb back up this slippery slope.