Feature: Privacy in the 21st Century

Pictures from Paris Hilton's hacked Sidekick II.This is the story that gives me an excuse to name Paris Hilton here at MaisonBisson.

Here’s a fact of 21st century life: pieces of our life that, taken one by one, are seemingly insignificant are being gathered and indexed by a handful of companies that re-sell that data to phone marketers, the CIA, and many others. Information that we recognize as somewhat more significant and often more private, like our driving records and tax information, gets sold and traded right along with the rest of it.

A bunch of Californians are going to school on this now because ChoicePoint recently revealed that the records of almost 150,000 people where stolen. The extra kicker is that ChoicePoint only announced the theft because it was compelled to do so by a recently passed California law.

Here’s the quote from the ArsTechnica story:

ChoicePoint provides information on consumers including date of birth, Social Security numbers, names, addresses, and credit information to government agencies, businesses, and insurance companies. Due to a failure on the part of the company to adequately screen those looking to access its data, approximately 50 fraudulent accounts were set up and used to obtain personal information on around 145,000 people.

We live in a world where almost every action is tracked, measured, and recorded, but these things happen in the background, out of sight, and automatically. Simson Garfinkel’s Database Nation describes the world as it exists, but when cast in his light seems entirely foreign. From the Amazon review:

According to Garfinkel, “technology is not privacy neutral.” It leaves us with only two choices: 1) allow our personal data to rest in the public domain or 2) become hermits (no credit cards, no midnight video jaunts — you get the point).

In one example, Garfinkel notes that an insurance claim form requires that patients grant the insurance provider blanket authorization to access any and all information about the patient they wish. Signing opens yet another hole in the the very thin blanket of security that protects our privacy, but patients who refuse to sign also forfeit their coverage.

And here’s the thing, privacy isn’t just for conspiracy freaks. One of the biggest lessons of the ChoicePoint story is that once the information is collected, it’s subject to theft and misuse. Even if we trust our insurance company with details of our medical history and every purchase we’ve ever made, do we trust every company they deal with? How confident are we that they, or another company they’ve shared their data with, won’t suffer data theft?

The ChoicePoint story became public only because state law required the company report the data theft, but break-ins and data theft happen in states that don’t have similar reporting laws, further, companies often don’t even know they’ve suffered theft or break in.

Case in point: either Brill.com likes what’s happening, or they don’t know how to fix it, or they still don’t know about this very public problem with their search engine. As reported in January: “…a search for bond funds returns a list of stories that have little to do with financial news.”

Brill.com’s problem is public and visible, but data theft often leaves no tracks. It’s likely that ChoicePoint only became aware of their data thefts after stories of the remarkable ease with which ne’er-do-wells could get data bubbled up from the underworld.

More public, however, are data thefts that expose details (and photos) of celebrities. News leaked in early January that cracker Nicolas Jacobsen had been snooping in T-Mobile‘s servers (for a year!), so it’s actually sort of surprising that it’s only today that Engadget and Gizmodo are reporting that the hacker’s catch included pictures from Paris Hilton‘s Sidekick II. Paris Hilton is no stranger to public exposure, but she got really worked up when her Blackberry got hacked a while ago. Gizmodo’s source says:

She was pretty upset about it. It’s one thing to have people looking at your sex tapes, but having people reading your personal e-mails is a real invasion of privacy.

The Sidekick story seems to have longer legs, so maybe now is the time people will start to get concerned about what tabs your cell provider keeps on you. Engadget seems to think so:

We feel bad that Avril Lavigne’s personal assistant had to get her boss a new phone number on a Sunday, but that’s a small price to pay if T-Mobile (and every other company that handles their customers’ private data) finally gets hammered home that they need to do a lot better job securing our privacy.

Sure, the picture was gratuitous, but the point was valid. Right?

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