Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

You're being watched. That's okay, though, we do it for your own benefit. Or so we'd like you to think...

Starting March 1st Google's much anticipated new privacy policy will take place. Of course, how much it will or will not affect your life depends upon your own personal choices. It strikes me, though, how much the Internet has become a place like those Italian marketplaces I used to love growing up: lots to see, stands full of goodies, lots of people, lots of entertaining distractions, yet if you don't keep a constant eye on your wallet next thing you know it'll be gone.

What can you lose on the Internet?

Well, privacy, of course. It's a subtle question. Google offers me a service, and in a way, they have a right to access certain information that, by accepting their services, I am voluntarily giving up. Where's the boundary, though? For one thing, I'm bugged by the fact that they present it as yet another service they are offering me: they gather information so they can make my searches easier and provide me with a better service, tailored to my needs.

Please. It's called marketing, and we all know it.

I am indeed grateful for all the services Google is offering me. I love the Blogger platform, and, as I have stated before, I am thrilled with G+ and the community there. I also understand that no service is ever free, rather it comes at a cost. Having said that, I think it's worth giving the whole thing some thought because, as a Google user, I feel I have to make a choice of how much of my information I want to share.

Check-out what Leonhardt and Magee had to say back in 1998 (Remember 1998? Gmail didn't even exist back then!):
"[...] location services will often become repositories of potentially sensitive personal and corporate information. Where you are and who you are with are closely correlated with what you are doing. To leave this information unprotected for everybody to see is clearly undesirable. People would feel uncomfortable if their every move could be watched anonymously [1]."
Do you like to be watched anonymously?
From Google's new privacy policy:
"Location data: Google offers location-enabled services, such as Google Maps and Latitude. If you use those services, Google may receive information about your actual location (such as GPS signals sent by a mobile device) or information that can be used to approximate a location (such as a cell ID)."
You may argue it's a machine, not a person watching you. You're still being watched, though, and the way it's done -- as I understand it -- is not that you choose what to make public and what not to. Email or GPS signals are not something people typically post publicly, yet those pieces of info are apparently up for grabs as well. And that, to me, doesn't sound right.

Leonhardt and Magee predicted the future when they wrote:
"We are especially concerned with the balance between security imposed by the system (mandatory security), and security specified by individuals (discretionary security). [...] We expect that [a global location] service would be provided by a network of loosely cooperating providers, very similar to today's mobile telephone system. Customers would subscribe to one or more service providers. The providers would have roaming agreements with each other. [...] Further, there is scope for third-party location-aware services. For example, such a service might be responsible to automatically inform emergency services when a distress signal from a subscriber is received. On the other hand, users will often have to trust the service providers to obey the security policy laid down in the service contract."
Another quote, from a 2006 paper this time (yes, I did a lot of research on this!):
"These technologies can be applied for private and public goals, and can be used in private and public situations. Although it is possible to make a distinction between private and public on an analytical level, in reality, it is difficult to draw a clear line between private and public situations, and between private and public goals [2]."
That's exactly the issue here. Where do we draw the line between public service, hence available, and private data, hence "hands-off"? What are the dangers of not being able to draw such line? In the above paper, titled "Privacy invasions," philosophy professor Karsten Weber explains:
"In principle, leaving a physical place means leaving it forever; by contrast, being in cyberspace means being there forever, because all of an individual's actions are stored immediately, and can be tracked and analyzed. [...] The technology could be used to track individuals and monitor related characteristics, such as whether the person gathers in groups or prefers solitude. Even if the reader cannot imagine a use for such information, rest assured that marketing experts would find it highly valuable."
Some people seem not to be bothered by any of this. And most likely tomorrow I'll wake up and I'll no longer be bothered by it either. Still. I find it paradoxical that I live in a country where once kids are in college parents no longer have access to their grades or where one can't access the health record of an elderly relative because of privacy issues. Maybe next time you need to access any of that data you should ask Google.

[1] Leonhardt, U., & Magee, J. (1998). Security Considerations for a Distributed Location Service Journal of Network and Systems Management, 6 (1), 51-70 DOI: 10.1023/A:1018777802208

[2] Weber, K. (2006). Privacy invasions: New technology that can identify anyone anywhere challenges how we balance individuals' privacy against public goals EMBO reports, 7 DOI: 10.1038/sj.embor.7400684


  1. If you are interested in the topic might I suggest the Fourth Realm Trilogy by John Twelve Hawks. Fair warning, it will make you super paranoid.

  2. You mean more than I am now? ;-)

    Seriously, though, thanks, I'll certainly check it out. And to be honest, I'm not surprised somebody has already thought about it: it's not so hard to envision a story under this scenario with all possible things going wrong (how long until one sentence gets taken out of context and a witch-hunt starts?) under an alternate, highly controlling society... Well, I do tend to have an overactive imagination! :)

  3. Interesting. What about the possibility of someone with intent more malicious than Google's getting a person's data? It's really hard to say how much concern is valid, it's all so new. In any case, it is fascinating to watch all this evolve, and so rapidly -- our social nature is so strong!

    1. All excellent points. I'm not sure myself how much concern is valid. And yes, we are social people, so this is not going to stop us (me!) from using Google or any other social network.

  4. Oh, Hollis: I haven't forgotten your question!! The post on DNA transfer from organelle to nucleus is scheduled for tomorrow! :)

    1. cool, looking forward to Friday ... for more than the usual reasons :)

  5. Nice post. In general (your mileage varies of course), US law is less strict than European law in the "consumer" data area. Medical data laws are pretty good. Most of the reasons (but not all) US companies have for wanting data is to enable them to sell you more things.
    It is actually pretty easy to leak all sorts of information you may not be aware of. For example, many photos (especially cell phone) include GPS data within them. IP addresses can be used as geographic locators ...
    The amount of data that can be extracted using modern statistical analysis from things like social networks is quite amazing--even if you are using a pseudonym.
    If you really need to be anonymous there are ways to do it but it requires some amount of forethought and work.

  6. Thanks for this, that's quite interesting. I personally don't want to be anonymous but I would like to have control on what I share publicly and what I don't want to share publicly. That's why I don't generally approve of cookies on my computer that monitor my email ... email is something I don't consider "public." But anyways, I might ask you more on this stuff!

  7. Yes, I agree that we should be able to control what is and isn't public about ourselves. Unfortunately, it isn't a simple matter right now.
    In a related movement, the transparency of government functions is becoming more opaque.
    It's all a fascinating and important topic.


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