Thursday, January 3, 2013

naive views, inaccuracy, and re-identification challenges

People face many privacy challenges and decisions every day, most of the time without knowing it. Privacy has slowly changed over time and this slow metamorphosis has gone unnoticed by many. Most people do not make connections with their decisions and how it affects their privacy. As quoted in Blown to Bits, West (1967) defines privacy as the claim of people to determine for themselves the extent in which information about them is conveyed to others. This definition leaves a lot to interpretation. Even the Merriam-Webster definition, freedom from unauthorized intrusion, leaves much to interpretation. Additionally, societal values have shifted over the years due to the ease of access of information. Hence, privacy has shifted and continues to shift.

In current times, privacy faces three distinct challenges. First and foremost, simple or naïve views of people add to the issue of keeping information private. Government, corporations, and businesses collect millions of informational bits on everyone. RFID, microphones, facial recognition, online activity, and much more record every second of our day. RFID tags reside on car tires, credit cards, tags in clothes, shoes, smart passes, phones, driver licenses, food packaging, and much more. Cell phones provide an easy privacy invader to unexpecting owners. Cell phones incorporate GPS technology to track your movement, a microphone that could be turned on at any time, personal information like contacts that could be downloaded off the phone, and apps that record everything you do on your phone. Surveillance cameras at ATMs, red lights, convenience stores, and a plethora of other locations capture your movement and can identify you through sophisticated facial recognition software. Additionally, every time people accept online privacy policies to open new accounts to the latest social media or web 2.0 sites, they give up their information that they list on the site. Also, cookies track people’s surfing habits. Let’s not forget about privacy destruction of malware. Even computers not plugged into the Internet can leak information through the Van Eck phreaking method (TechTarget, 2001). Furthermore to scare people more, conversations can be tapped from afar by simply observing the vibrations of your windows while you’re in the car or at home (Szczys, 2010).

The bleak picture painted above leads us to believe that nothing is sacred anymore. However, an informed person can take steps to keep their privacy intact. First, a person must realize that RFID tags can only be read within 15 feet. If they really want to prevent their information from being read, they can always line their wallets with aluminum foil and purchase a RFID detector to find and remove the RFID chips. With cell phones, users should always keep their phones locked with a pass code, turn Bluetooth off when not in use (Bluetooth worm can steal the users information), and if they really want their information private, users can remove the battery when the phone is not in use. Although it’s nearly impossible today to avoid surveillance cameras, there are several steps a person can take to avoid drawing attention to them, like not acting suspicious to looking straight ahead. Additionally, people can keep information private by not posting every detail of their lives online that they do not want others to know. In addition, cookies can be deleted on regular basis or turned off completing by adjusting user settings. In essence, people need to make intelligent decisions about their everyday tasks. Furthermore, people need to realize by ignoring these privacy issues does not make them go away. They need to learn and adapt to the new emerging technology.

The second challenge to privacy entails inaccuracy in collected information. Amazon does an excellent job of tracking our purchases and trying to suggest new items that we may be interested in purchases. For instance, I purchase many gifts on Amazon because of the convenience of shopping online. However, Amazon thinks that I have purchased these items for myself and I often receive email from Amazon letting me know when similar products are on sale. The same issue will occur if you purchase gifts and use a store’s convenience card. Now you are tagged as liking the gift you purchased when it may not interest you personally.

A potential method of combating this privacy issue is contacting the vendor. In most cases, you can have the item removed from the list that is associated with you. This process is easier with some vendors than it is with others. Some allow you to email or fill out a web form; whereas, others make you jump through multiple hoops to remove the association with a gift and your list.

The third challenge and probably the most damaging involve re-identification of associated information. Many vendors collect and sell or post personal collected information on the web. Typically, the information is de-indentified. However, if several de-identified lists of information are combined in one database, chances are that several people can be identified through triangulation methods. The AOL information release and the MIT students who identify 8,000 of 11,000 victims are just mere examples of how you can be identified with the information available on the Internet (Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis, 2011). As you can imagine, this challenge poses more complicated measures to avoid being re-identified.

The three privacy challenges of naïve views, inaccurate collection, and re-identification create real issues for people who try to live a private life. The challenges can be over come through taking special measures. Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis (2008) explain the situation the best when they ask, “… how can we make ourselves less vulnerable to the downsides of living in such an exposed world?” (p. 22). On the other hand you can take the opposite view like Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy proclaims, “You have zero privacy anyway! Get over it!” (Landy and Mastrobattista,2008, p. 453). Mainly, keep yourself informed, make a decision on your privacy, and stick to your privacy plan.


Abelson, H., Ledeen, K., and Lewis, H. (2008). Blown toBits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion. Addison-Wesley: NJ.

Landy, G., and Mastrobattista, A. (2008). The IT / DigitalLegal Companion: A Comprehensive Business Guide to Software, IT, Internet, Media and IP Law. Syngress: Burlington.

Merriam-Webster. (2012). Privacy. Retrieved February 24, 2012 from

Szczys, M. (2010). Laser mic makes eavesdropping remarkably simple. Retrieved February 24, 2012 from
TechTarget (2001). Van Eck Phreaking. Retrieved February 24,2012 from

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