You Already Are A Suspect

by David Sklar

I saw href="">William
Safire's "You Are A Suspect" column everywhere yesterday -- in the
newspaper on my kitchen table, in href="">Tim O'Reilly's
weblog, on href="">Slashdot,
and on plenty of mailing lists. Usually, the reference to the column was
followed up by outrage and suggestions on what to do about it. (I
suppose if I were a regular reader of href="">John Poindexter's weblog,
I'd find a different spin.)

I agree with the outrage and encouragements to do something about
it. But that's only a short-term solution. Comprehensive repositories
of personal information already exist and will only become more
pervasive. The challenge is not preventing their creation, but
adapting to the world that they create.

When href=",1283,17538,00.html">Scott
McNealy told us in 1999 that we "have zero privacy", he was on the
right track. Extensive records of your commercial behavior already
exist in giant databases where
your Social Security Number is the primary key. If you are a "public
figure", or the "relative" or "close associate" of one, then Factiva
is keeping track of
. Face it: unless you are a meticulous, cash-only, cabin-in-the-woods dweller or are wealthy enough to wrap yourself in layers of international corporations and intermediaries, you already are a suspect.

By that, I mean that the collections of data already exist to mine
signficantly for detailed analysis of your possibly traitorous
lifestyle. Thanks to Supreme Court Nominee Robert Bork, your href="">video
rental records are safe, but just about everything else is fair
game. It doesn't matter if it's collected by the government or a
private company. The Fair Credit Reporting Act, which takes a stab at
regulating credit bureaus, href="">explicitly
contains provisions allowing disclosure of information to government

So how might we deal with this already extant world in which we leave
muddy footprints of data everywhere we spend, receive medical
treatment, travel by plane or train, make a phone call, use a href="">toll booth, or even carry a turned-on
cell phone?

David Brin wrote a book a few years ago called href="">The
Transparent Society in which his solution to this problem is to
make more data available. Theorizing that the danger in
ubiquitous information collection is that those who collect it operate
in secret, his prescription is to collect lots of information on
everybody (including the collectors) and make it available to
everybody. There might be a surveillance camera in the employee
bathroom, but there'll be one in the executive washroom, too. And
everyone can look at both video feeds. Shortly after reading the book,
I wrote about
why its solution is a bad idea
. Among other reasons, it rests on
the notion of "if you're not doing anything wrong, then you've got
nothing to hide" and places an implicit assumption of guilt upon
someone who voluntarily chooses to not disclose information.

Another potential solution could be a sort of reverse steganography, where
the valuable information is hidden among lots of decoys. This has its
beginnings in efforts like those to href="">swap
your supermarket loyalty card with a stranger. It's similar to
RIAA attempts to href="">poison
P2P networks with files that look like popular songs, but
aren't. Obviously, this kind of approach could be harder to pull off
with more sensitive data (switching dental records with a pal is
tricky) but might be promising.

Large government databases
overseen by a convicted felon make me just as queasy as the next loyal
citizen. But there are going to be more databases and more
overseers. We ultimately must adapt to and gain from this technology.

How can we cope with our accumulated digital footprints?