Those of us who are aware of the
risks already self-censor our activities, even as
we continue to indulge them.
What is most worrisome is less that the data is
being collected at any given moment and more how it
will be used (and abused) in the future. Future
advances in data mining, profiling, and machine
learning are particularly worrisome. While I don’t
foresee a dystopia in the near future, I do see a steady
decline in individual freedoms and civil liberties. This
decline is not new, dating back to at least the 1970s
when large computerized databases of personal information were being formed in earnest. The pace accelerated globally in the aftermath of 9/11. Will we
eventually reach equilibrium? I think not. The gravitational pull of both profit and power will continue to
drive the decline.
Public outcry may have the power to stem the tide,
but public opinion is fickle. Even the 2005 Sony
rootkit incident, in which tainted Sony CDs were able
to infect hundreds of thousands of end-user PCs, and
the 2006 AOL data spill did little to penetrate the
public consciousness. In one 2007 study only 16% of
the participants reported being familiar with the AOL
incident six months after it took place [ 4]. If this lack
of public interest characterizes the general population,
a less extreme rate of change will be unable to generate enough resistance to make a difference.
People have only a small window of experience to
use as a reference. Chances are you lived through 9/11
and knew adult life before that day. You have a reference point, but when our generation is gone, few
guides will be available to show how to defend our
personal privacy. Those in power are loathe to relinquish or even share it. And, as the power and control
this information (and its data-mined results) provides
over hundreds of millions of citizens is seductive, corruption is inevitable. Action is critical, before it is too
late to forestall individuals from losing control of their
own data and perhaps even of their digital identities.
I don’t want to live my life inside a Faraday cage
and abandon the Internet. To do so would force me
to withdraw from modern society. The future I foresee isn’t guaranteed; each of us has the innate ability to
influence the trajectory of technology development
and use. The public is unaware, apathetic, or sees no
other option than the status quo. But each of us is able
to change it. As the world’s leading technologists, we
have the power to seek and find equitable solutions
that would protect our privacy, increase our trust, and
still allow online businesses, social interaction, and
network providers to innovate and flourish.
In the future, Googling could indeed take down a
president, yield a cure for cancer, and ruin or enrich
our lives. We have to live with the past decade’s worth
of disclosures, but promising solutions are on the
horizon. Whether they include paying for privacy,
better tools for self-monitoring online activity, anonymous browsing, informed law-making, privacy-pro-tecting corporate policy, increased user awareness, or
something yet to be discovered, the solution is up to
each of us. c
1. Barbaro, M. and Zeller, T. A face is exposed for AOL searcher no.
4417749. The New York Times (Aug, 9, 2006);
2. Battelle, J. The database of intentions. John Battelle’s Searchblog (Nov.
13, 2003); battellemedia.com/archives/000063.php.
3. Conti, G. Googling considered harmful. In Proceedings of the New Security Paradigms Workshop (Schloss Dagstuhl, Germany, Sept. 19– 22).
ACM Press, New York, 2006, 67– 76.
4. Conti, G. and Sobiesk, E. An honest man has nothing to fear: User perceptions on Web-based information disclosure. In Proceedings of the Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security (Pittsburgh, July 18– 20). ACM
Press, New York, 2007, 112– 121.
5. Thompson, K. Reflections on trusting trust. Commun. ACM 27, 8 (Aug.
GREGORY CONTI ( email@example.com) is Director of the Information
Technology and Operations Center and an Academy Professor of
Computer Science at the United States Military Academy, West Point,
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy
or position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, the
Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.