Sunday, March 25, 2012

Your Most Personal Information--Exposed and Exploited

Gilad Elbaz, from NYT article
Gilad Elbaz, who is collecting every true piece of data that exists, has a disturbing proposition: "'Lately I've been thinking that we need to get more personal data,' Mr. Elbaz says.  He doesn't mean names and addresses, but their genetic information, what they ate, when and where they exercised--ideally for everyone on the planet, now and forever."

A New York Times business section article today profiles  the genius-entrepreneur founder of Factual, a Los Angeles company organizing everything from Yelp restaurant reviews to all the wine grape varietals.
If you knew that someone could extract from The Cloud the fact that you snuck in a couple of Winchell's chocolate eclairs on your way home from work, would you still do it?  If your health insurance provider--and Barack Obama would have that be the Federal Government--knew that you hardly ever used that gym membership they subsidized, would you be inclined to go more often?

Or would you figure that you're just numbers to them--a sheet of genetic information--so nobody really cares?  Is it time we give up all pretense of privacy, and just assume our most personal habits are exposed? Factual already has in its collection the body masses of celebrities, and it's working toward including yours. Think you'll be able to opt out when the Big Computer has already obtained your birth, schooling and work information from hospitals, educational institutions and industries?

Nineteen Eighty Four was twenty-eight years ago. We're way past that, or perhaps actually into that, where government and business merge for their individual benefits. "Factual's to build the world's chief reference point for thousands of interconnected supercomputing clouds," writes Quentin Hardy. "The digital world is expected to hold a collective 2.7 zettabytes of data by year end, an amount roughly equivalent to 700 billion DVDs."  Ordinary people, says the article, could tap into all this through "data marts." Ultimately, combining all the information allows discerning patterns "in nature and society, for scientists to observe, and businesses to exploit."

It's happening now. How do you think those ads on the edge of your Facebook page are chosen?  Search and ye shall be found, and tailored ads will be thrust before your eyes. It won't be long before a company like Factual links your Facebook profile to your gym attendance or purchase of running shoes on your credit card.

Which could actually be a good thing, if it deters bad behavior.  Imagine if your phone's locator lets your spouse know you're at a motel at lunchtime, or a strange residential address at 4 pm?  Imagine if your BMI is available to your employer, or your purchase of cigars or botox is searchable.  Aggregating data for research purposes quickly devolves to less noble uses.  But your personal life as billboard also can instill the fear of God. And others.

I find it creepy, but my reaction is irrelevant given the reality that The Cloud can even now rain drops of data everywhere. I also find it deleterious that somebody might revise what he eats based on knowing his choice is entering his data file.  It seems that more and more influences are making our behavior a response to who we're impressing rather than trusting over-arching values and, in the case of food, what we really want to eat.

Perhaps once we relax about the fact that our lives are bits of information to someone else, we can get over the belief that we're individually special.  We resist entities knowing our intimate lives because we care about them so much. But these organizations have the same data on everybody else, and generally they really don't have the interest to pick you out for anything more than to sell you something.  It's true that being bombarded with advertising is annoying and intrusive, but that's the world we're approaching or, if you have a smart phone, enduring.

I think of just 150 years ago, in the industrializing United States, where people communicated by hand-written letters that took days to arrive. The phone allowed instant interchange, and then email brought so many more people close, enabling immediate contact, free and easy. Now we're crowded even closer, with Facebook and Twitter allowing people from elementary school through mildest acquaintances through simply fame to know inner thoughts as they occur.  We're jamming together, and years' past fears of overpopulation have receded to be replaced with virtual claustrophobia no matter where we choose to run.


  1. To some extent the mere size of the data store will cause the need for a specific schema (organization and structure) of such a giant repository. Joins of data like BMI and eating patterns and exercise might be handled by specialized datasets designed to achieve certain goals (e.g. health levels) but massive amounts of flexible querying is impractical over such giant data marts.
    Certainly some spying can and will be done this way but there are serious technical limits to flexible and reponsive action by this sort of "Big Brother".