It’s Getting A Lot Easier For Me To Invade Your Privacy

by Matthew Russell

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Anyone reading this post probably already knows about ZabaSearch, but just in case you don’t, click on the link and look yourself up on it. Then when you’re done looking yourself up, try to look up some friends or family. And if you wonder where they live, go on over to Google Local, and type in their address. Be sure to choose the satellite photo option if you want to get a better view of the neighborhood.

If this is the first time you’ve put those concepts together, you might be in a state of shock and amazement. Phrases like “invasion of privacy” might be running through your head. But are either of the sites really a threat to your privacy at all? I guess it depends on how you define the term -- and I’ll leave that for you to determine -- but at least someone out there is probably outraged about all of this.

ZabaSearch is basically a public information search engine. They hail what they call "data democratization”, which basically means that if there’s public information out there about you, then you have access to it -- but so does everyone else. They’re just facilitating the process.

For example, you can feel free to go to your local county courthouse and look up records that are publicly available to discover who owns particular properties, who has recently been in court, etc. -- and along the way, you’ll stumble across addresses, the names of spouses or children, and all sorts of other goodies. Some companies do nothing but harvest this information so they can sell it to solicitors and make a few bucks. So ZabaSearch doesn’t generate any data about you that’s not already out there in one form or another, it just provides a one-stop shop for accessing it all. Before you decide to dedicate your life to the eradication of ZabaSearch, check here for some interesting reading from a legal perspective on what can be done when data democratization verges on privacy invasion.

So what’s all of the fuss about? Does ZabaSearch really give us something that a Yahoo! People Search hasn’t been for years? Or is it the momentum and the scare of where this could go that’s getting people all riled up?

Since I mentioned Google Local earlier, I’ll throw out another quandary for you. If there were publicly available commercial satellites that could give you great resolution within a meter or so in almost real time, could that system possibly constitute an invasion of privacy? Let’s assume that the system would be affordable enough that anyone could just sit on their computer and “browse the world” (assuming good weather.)

Very cool, right? That person with the big fence around their home that acts so secretive all of the time -- well, you’d be able to get in on the secrets in no time. Want to know how close the pizza delivery person is to your house? Just take a peek at your neighborhood when you're expecting them. Cops could pursue criminals as they flee just like on Enemy of the State and the paparazzi wouldn't have as many problems chasing the celebrities anymore.

But the ease of it all would provide criminals (or perverts) with a lot of leverage too. Want to rob a house when the family goes out for dinner? No need to case the joint in your car across the street anymore. Just watch from your computer screen and then trot on over after they leave for dinner one night. Have a pal watch the place and give you a heads up when they’re coming back so that you don’t get caught.

So is it cool or scary? Where do you draw the line with this stuff?


2005-10-25 01:13:20
Want to rob a house when the family goes out for dinner? No need to case the joint in your car across the street anymore.

And then make a dumb face when the prosecutors show up with satellite footage of your robbery. :-)

Pervasive universal surveillance of everyone by everyone would be a great societal leveller; the bottom line, it would be much more good than bad.

But it’s unlikely that a truly egalitarian system of this sort would happen, precisely because of its levelling potential. The President would not be amused at all if everyone in the entire world could watch the uncensored events in Iraq in real time as they unfold.

2005-10-25 13:51:47
pervasive universal surveillance
I've long been intrigued by the societal leveller aspect of pervasive universal surveillance (nice catch-phrase for that, btw).

Obviously to some of us it's important to seriously question and hopefully understand the positive benefits, negative risks, and intentions of these activities as objectively as possible.

How might the general awareness that things like data democratization are already happening? Some people simply can't, don't want to, or aren't quite ready to comprehend these realities, yet they're the ones who seem most likely to be victimized by them. And even when there's readiness are there genuine trusted authorities for disseminating this kind of information without it being subverted by cults of misinformation that prey on vulnerabilities of people to be shocked and tricked, emotionally and irrationally, into fear and paranoia?

[insert discussions of responsible media involvement]

Boundary dissolving is most successful when privacy, willingness, acceptance, and other personal issues are genuinely honored and respected. People can react and behave very strongly when forced to conform to things they're not ready for, or just feeling threats of impending conformance.

Without being overly prognosticative about it, preparing for change can be equally as important as change itself. I'm concerned that some people are becoming more susceptible to being blindsided and overwhelmed by certain changes that are having an increasing impact on their lives. Heck, I feel that way about myself at times. And sometimes it's not all too clear how to meaningfully participate in this grand historic process of change.

Umm, okay. Focusing back on the topic ...

The President would not be amused at all if everyone in the entire world could watch the uncensored events in Iraq in real time as they unfold.

Nor would anyone else. If that were possible, how might we determine whether or not that's acceptable and if it would be allowed to happen? How can (and will) we responsibly empower ourselves to make those choices? Or will we allow them to be made for us rather than by us? Ironically(?), the past few presidential puppet shows have reenforced my peculiar kind of optimism in how the future's unfolding. Plus my age... yeah, that must be it.

Finished, whew, with obligatory non-remarks about The Truman Show, EdTV, Reality TV, reminders with this topic.

[ps - sorry for any style typos; still no post preview here]

2005-10-26 04:50:07
nice catch-phrase for that, btw

Not really something I can take credit for. The “universal surveillance” moniker is Bruce Schneier’s coinage (or at least that’s where I got it from). I just added the “pervasive” bit to express the everywhere nature.

The way I see it, with technology being what it is and becoming what it becomes, we’re headed towards universal surveillance whether we like it or not. The only question is whether the all-seeing eyes will be controlled by an oppressive elite or be available to everyone.

I think in the very, very long run, it is inevitably going to be the latter; but that’s on a timescale of centuries. I’d rather it instead happen without a long-winded struggle. One chapter of Dark Ages in the history of mankind is enough.