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A Dark Cloud: Anonymity and Privacy Fall Further Before a Cloud Computing Experiment

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An ominous headline quietly passed through the electronic ether recently.  Carnegie Mellon University published a paper entitled “Faces of Facebook: Privacy in the Age of Augmented Reality (PDF).”  The paper details the results of a study they performed centering on their facial recognition technology software PittPatt, also developed at CMU.  This study wasn’t designed to test a new level of sophistication with it, though.

The point of the study was to investigate how the emergence of multiple information technologies simultaneously combined to create a synergistic effect in information sharing.  In other words, the study meant to ask this question: with all of the information that exists on the web, combined with the increasing power of artificial intelligence to decipher it, is there any privacy anymore?

Do you really want this answer?

While the study fell short of saying “no” outright, the results are sure to send a chill up the spine of any privacy advocate.  The combination of all three parts of the study showed that, just using publicly accessible data, you can go from a picture of them to private information in a matter of minutes, assuming that the information they grabbed was already publicly accessible.

Let me repeat. If you are walking down the street, someone can take a picture of you using their cell phone and potentially know your Social Security number, sexual orientation, or home address in just a few minutes.

Why isn’t anyone saying anything?

If it seems like this should be major headlines and isn’t, there are two reasons for this, and neither of them have anything to do with the importance of the topic.

1. It’s not that new

No one single technological element of this study is new to us. Facial recognition technology goes back decades, and has been in more frequent open use in the last 10 years following post-9/11 security upgrades.

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As for the other side of the equation, illusions of any real privacy on the internet have mostly disintegrated.  FaceBook may make headlines now and then when they do something bone-headed with their accounts, but we’re well aware that they are far from the offenders, and this is likely to continue.

What’s new isn’t any one item, it’s what you get when you combine them all together, something which is much harder to notice until someone does a study like this one.  In that sense, then, we might be the proverbial frog in the pot of water.  Now that we’re starting to see where this is all going, we may be wondering if this is just a bit too toasty warm for us all.

2. Have too many of surrendered?

The other reason that you may not hear too much about this is that there are a lot of people who have assumed these types of developments are inevitable.  Even before “World Wide Web” became a household term there were a number of pop culture fictional worlds in just the 1990’s alone that essentially told the viewer “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  “The X-Files,” “Enemy of the State,” “The Matrix,” even “The Truman Show” were among the onslaught of movies and TV shows that convinced the user that it didn’t matter what they did: Big Brother was moving in, so you might as well setup a bed for him.  The fact that a TV show by that name (“Big Brother”) premiered in the 1990’s, and people tuned in without seeing or caring about the irony involved might be the strongest proof of this phenomenon imaginable.

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So what do I do?

I hate to compound bad news with more bad news, but the simple truth is this: we don’t know.  No one seems to.

Right on this very website are articles about how to get your information more publicly visible through various search engine optimization tricks.  We talk all over the place about how important it is to make it easy for others to find you.  Now suddenly we want to change course.  Can we?

Here’s the problem: all of the advice we can give for you on this you’ve heard already.  Use good passwords, don’t give out personal information when you don’t have to, all of this you’ve been beaten to death over.  This also doesn’t do anything for the fact that your name and information will make it out there in all sorts of ways that you don’t think of.

Anything more secure than that starts to move you towards places where you simply reduce your electronic presence entirely.  Is it that easy, though?  If you are some web-based business, of course the answer is no.  If you are just some artist trying to get by perhaps you can envision this, but that’s a lot easier than doing it.  The internet is sort of like the mafia that way: once you’re a part of the family, trying to remove yourself later from it is a dubious proposition.

I’ll give a few quick tips that can maybe dull the danger a bit:

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1. Don’t give out information needlessly

2. Use secure connections at all times

3. Always use your common sense

4. Find other privacy advocates.  If you are really are diehard about trying to make yourself invisible again, there are movements based around this idea that can give you decent advice and support.

The best advice: Just be ready for it

Truthfully, though, I’m wary of giving too many tips because I don’t want to setup the impression that any of these things are magic shields.  I’d rather in turn just get you used to the idea that this is how it is.

Here’s an exercise: when you do anything whatsoever online, start out with the assumption that the entire world is over your shoulder watching you.  Pretty scary, huh?  Let it sink in though.  Once you accept this worst-case scenario, you realize that in the end this is something you can deal with.  It’s a huge life lesson to work into what you probably thought was just a technical article, but it’s true: if you  base less of your life and livelihood on secretiveness, and more of it on “things that can’t be taken from me”, you’ll have less to worry about.

19th century theologian Søren Kierkegaard said as much, that the man who bases his safety on how secret is his life is doomed to failure.  Maybe coming here for a sermon was not what you had in mind.  As we start to realize that cyberspace is a monster that has long gotten out of our control, though, maybe a word or two from our wise men is not such a bad idea.


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