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Private Islands

The deluge of data, now in the zettabytes annually, as discussed in last month's column, is creating a big privacy problem for individual humans. Managing personal data security seems as difficult as financing an enclave on a private island. Celebrities no longer have a monopoly on the issue. Many ordinary humans are concerned that our privacy is under the online equivalent of telephoto scrutiny by paparazzi.

These concerns recently sparked an interesting thread on the MLMUG listserv about risks of storing data in the cloud. Most of us have no information on how the government can access cloud data, to what degree our data is at risk to hacking in the cloud, whether encryption is helpful and how to do it, and what our exposure is on social media and the Internet.

If you think limits on data storage capacity will limit how much data can be gathered about you and how long it will persist in the public domain, think again. Your personal data could be around forever.

Recently, an international research team announced progress towards creating "molecular memory," a technology for storing data in individual molecules, that works at about the freezing point of water. Previous molecular memory techniques required cooling to absolute zero. The new technology offers a hundred-fold increase over the current hard disk storage capacity which is approximately one million megabytes per square inch.

Japanese researchers are working on small squares of quartz glass that could hold almost as much information as a CD and last hundreds of millions of years. One commentator noted, however, that if these small wafers are not protected they could turn to beach sand, perhaps for private island enclaves of the future.

News items about cyber attacks on corporate and private data are a recent news highlight, and opinions and actions about surveillance, security and privacy are all over the map. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently asked mobile companies to include do-not-track features in software and apps and take other measures to protect privacy. Although the guidelines are not binding they serve as notice of the kinds of activity that might trigger a government enforcement action, such as misleading users about how often geolocation data is gathered, accessing user address books, and storing information about children.

A startup company, Silent Circle, is offering what it says is a "surveillance-proof," user-friendly encryption app for the iPhone and iPad. The app has a "This file will self-destruct in 7 minutes" feature. The company says it will not comply with law enforcement eavesdropping requests and notes its product can be used for video-documenting of human rights violations.

A new video game, Watch Dog, puts the human player in the role of a hacker who appears to be innocently strolling down a city street but who is actually spying on government computer systems and the iPhones of passersby. One commentator says the game is a digital mirror, reflecting our human concerns about privacy and security.

Anita Allen, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies privacy from a broad legal and public policy perspective, argues that moral philosophy gives individuals, corporations and governments a duty to protect individual privacy. Privacy isn't just an individual problem, but one that affects everyone in society. Allen has some ideas worth thinking about. She says that it can be an invasion of privacy to offend others by letting private information out to air on social media. She also maintains that individual humans have a moral obligation to protect their own privacy.

One of the biggest issues for individual humans is social media privacy. Some services exist, at a price, for improving one's online reputation. What about an AI program to help with this? Here's a free idea to anyone who wants to pursue it: an AI program that's more than just a search engine for listing occurrences of your name, but one that will also automatically search online on a daily basis, alerting you to anything unusual, including the context where you are mentioned - for example, your name next to an ad for __________ (fill in the blank with any reputation-damaging product or service).

Next month: More about data, including how the availability of zettabytes of data is changing the nature of scientific research.

Sources and additional information:

Timothy Hornyak, "Data Saved in Quartz Glass Might Last 300 Million Years," Scientific American, January 6, 2013, tinyurl.com/bf5l8he.

Larry Hardesty, "Storing data in individual molecules," MIT news, January 23, 2013, tinyurl.com/a8s39zf.

Edward Wyatt, "F.T.C. Suggests Privacy Guidelines for Mobile Apps," The New York Times, February 1, 2013, tinyurl.com/ajp7ffx.

Ryan Gallagher, "The Threat of Silence," Slate, February 4, 2013, tinyurl.com/b6eo3r6.

Hayley Sukayama, "New video games mirror debates about data privacy, hacking," The Washington Post, February 22, 2013, tinyurl.com/b9kfqwa.

Brown and White Staff, "Anita Allen Discusses Privacy and Ethical Decision Making," lehighvalleylive.com, February 21, 2013, tinyurl.com/atfc84d.

Kathy Garges is a member of MLMUG.

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©2013 by Kathy Garges & MLMUG
Posted 03/05/13
Updated xx/xx/13