Internet data mining hastens the death of personal privacy

Thursday's Editorial   —   Posted on March 1, 2012

(by John Eger, – Some time ago, Scott McNealy, then head of Sun Microsystems, said quite emphatically, “Privacy is dead. Get over it.”

Nobody seemed to care, frankly. Even now that Google has released its new privacy rules, there is considerable indifference.

Some folks say, “This is nothing new.” Already Facebook uses your private information to suggest other friends for you. All Google is proposing is to aggregate [collect] all the sites and services you use to make your search and your experience on Google more meaningful. So the services Google is talking about are simply being increasingly tailored to you? Maybe not.

As more and more of our daily activities for work, for play and for everyday living involve the use of this network of networks, every aspect of our lives is suddenly open to surveillance and the misappropriation and misuse of personal information, including our habits and by extension our innermost thoughts.

Author Jeffrey Rosen, in his book “The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America,” parodies Arthur C. Clarke’s famous computer character HAL, and offers a seemingly amusing yet truly disturbing glimpse of how we might be visible to these Internet voyeurs [people who likes seeing something that is considered to be private]:

“Good morning, Dave. Up rather late last night with me, weren’t you? … Perhaps it is none of my business (ha, ha, ha) … speaking of business, Dave, I noticed you cashed out of Intel yesterday. It wouldn’t be because of all of that credit card debt you and the wife have run up lately, would it? Anyway, have a good day at the office, Dave. I look forward to more of those emails about – how did you put it? – that ‘boss I would like to strangle with a coat hanger.’”

Obviously, the more a company knows about you, the better it can tailor and target its advertising message. For example, if you seem to be getting an unusual number of electronic ads from weight-loss firms, maybe you visited once too often or just ordered a subscription to “Cooking Light.” …

Thanks to Google’s desire to satisfy advertiser demand for personal profiles for demographic data on each of us as individual consumers, we are at that crucial juncture in the history of the world where decisions have to made. We are at a point where some lines have to be drawn or give up forever the “right to be left alone,” as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis saw it, and to have any say about the collection or use of what we used to call “personal” information.

It is increasingly clear that in our zeal to promote the marvels of the Internet, we may be seriously eroding the fundamental rights of the average citizen and consumer.

Today, given the pervasive influence of the Internet, unscrupulous agents either of government or commerce can tell where your mouse sits on your desktop, what sites you visit and for how long, and can track your movement from one website to another.

Abusive scavenging for information also occurred, of course, before the widespread use of the Internet and the World Wide Web. What is different now is that information of this kind and much more is becoming increasingly available to commercial enterprises in their relentless search for markets, and to governments to satisfy their thirst for personal information, all at the risk of undermining our fundamental rights.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. We have little legislation today to deal with the proliferation of information on the web. And too many Americans already have compromised their personal rights for a free six-pack of Coke or a membership in a frequent-buyer program.

Most are not even aware they are so vulnerable.

It would be ironic and sad if the same Constitution which created a free press and a free-enterprise system enabling the robust knowledge economy we now admire was somehow responsible for the massive loss of personal privacy and a demise of more fundamental freedoms of our democratic society.

John Eger, a lawyer and former communications executive, holds the Lionel Van Deerlin Endowed Chair of Communications and Public Policy at San Diego State University.

© Copyright 2012 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Posted at on February 16, 2012.  Reprinted here on March 1, 2012 for educational purposes only.