To Gain Privacy, Be Totally Open

There were two interesting, in-depth privacy related stories over the weekend, one in the New York Times and the other in San Jose Mercury News.

The first titled, â''Youâ''re Leaving a Digital Trail. What About Privacy?â'' in the Times starts off discussing an experiment at MIT where in exchange for a free smartphone, about 100 students living in Random Hall are allowing researchers to track their every move. The information is being by researchers not only to keep physical track of the students, but to determine the extent of the dormâ''s social network.

The Times story then goes into some depth about how technology is allowing many different organizations, from market researchers to health care companies to government agencies, to track what we do, what we buy, who we communicate with, and potentially determine what we may be planning to do next.

The Times story notes, â''Collective intelligence could make it possible for insurance companies, for example, to use behavioral data to covertly identify people suffering from a particular disease and deny them insurance coverage. Similarly, the government or law enforcement agencies could identify members of a protest group by tracking social networks revealed by the new technology.â''

The story quotes Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy rights group in Washington. â''Some have argued that with new technology there is a diminished expectation of privacy. But the opposite may also be true. New techniques may require us to expand our understanding of privacy and to address the impact that data collection has on groups of individuals and not simply a single person.â''

However, Thomas W. Malone, director of the M.I.T. Center for Collective Intelligence also makes the counterpoint that, â''For most of human history, people have lived in small tribes where everything they did was known by everyone they knew. In some sense weâ''re becoming a global village. Privacy may turn out to have become an anomaly.â''

Which leads me to the second story titled, â''I'm Not a Terrorist,â'' appearing in the Mercury News.

This one is about San Jose State art professor Hasan Elahi who is worried that somewhere in the bowels of US government he is suspected of being a terrorist. The reason for his concern is that Elahi, a Bangladeshi-born naturalized US citizen, was questioned by the FBI in 2002 while re-entering the country following a trip to Africa. Elahi says that the FBI had received a tip that he was stockpiling explosives for al-Qaida in a Florida storage locker.

The FBI released Elahi after nine hours of questioning and lie detector tests convinced them that he was innocent. However, Elahi, who traveled a lot overseas, figured that the incident would end up placing him on some government terrorist list and he would be detained again. (Not an unreasonable amount of paranoia, I think).

So, Elahi decided to be proactive, and has sent the FBI his daily whereabouts. Over the past five years, Elahi "has taken more than 22,000 pictures of virtually every meal he has eaten, of the rooms â'' including most of the public toilets â'' he has visited, and of the roads he has traveled down,â'' says the Mercury News story.

You can see it all on his website, at

Earlier this year, Elahi was on the Steven Colbert television show, where he explained the reasoning behind his actions. Colbert summed up Elahiâ''s approach in this way,

â''If somebody really wants to guard their privacy, they should make it something that no one wants, by not having it anymore.â''

If you have trouble following the logic, watch the video.

Another benefit of giving up all your information, Elahi says, is that government intelligence databases often contain wrong â'' and potentially harmful â'' information, and so keeping the record straight is important.

I should note that the Mercury News also casts a shadow on Elahiâ''s account as well:

â''The FBI will neither confirm nor deny Elahi's claim that he was detained because there is no official record that it ever happened. A field agent in the bureau's San Francisco office responded to a description of Elahi's story as â''not likely,â'' but no one at the FBI with direct knowledge of the case returned calls.â''

Regardless, Elahi may be on to something.

As I wrote about last year, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Dr. Donald Kerr thought that, â''Too often, privacy has been equated with anonymity; and itâ''s an idea that is deeply rooted in American culture.â''

That's apparently no longer a valid or reasonable idea. â''In our interconnected and wireless world, anonymity â'' or the appearance of anonymity â'' is quickly becoming a thing of the past. ... Protecting anonymity isnâ''t a fight that can be won.â''

Maybe, as Elahi implies, an Oscar Wilde solution (i.e., â''When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.â'') is needed, where all Americans let the US government have unfettered access to all their data, like the students at MIT are doing. The government would be so overwhelmed with data to analyze and store, that our anonymity would start to slowly return.


Risk Factor

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Robert Charette
Spotsylvania, Va.
Willie D. Jones
New York City