The idea of centralizing data to find patterns and links among people is no longer limited to governments or corporations. Individuals are now getting into the game with "social networking" web sites, the hottest thing in Silicon Valley.
Friendster, Ryze, Linked-in, Tribe.Net, Yafro, Plaxo, and Spoke are a networker's dream but a privacy-hawk's nightmare. These sites are aggregating information, provided by people themselves, that could prove almost as useful as a Total Information Awareness (TIA) program to government snoops.
Government and corporate databases contain a good deal of information and, if put together like the Pentagon wanted to do with TIA (which was re-named "Terrorist" Information Awareness), can paint a fairly accurate picture of someone's life.
After public uproar about the possibility of a government-created central database containing loads of information on innocent people, Congress cancelled funding for TIA. Undeterred, law enforcement is now working with the private sector to gather data.
With a $12 million dollar federal grant and co-operation from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, a company called Seisint is working on a system named MATRIX (Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange) to compile an electronic dossier on every person in the nation. It's both worrisome and natural that this is taking place. Worrisome, because government has a history of misusing sensitive data and natural because technological advances combined with desperation to catch terrorists mean that law enforcement will gather as much data as possible.
I joined Friendster, Ryze, Linked-in, Tribe.Net, Yafro, Plaxo and Spoke and stand amazed at the amount of data they hold. If social networking sites continue with the success they've had over the last year, Scott McNealy's quip "you have zero privacy anyway, so get over it," will be as true as the maxim that knowledge is power.
Personal associations, business contacts, address books, email communications, photos, hobbies, favorite books, music, interests, thoughts, even what I'm looking to buy in the classifieds -- it's all online. Since individuals put it there, the data is likely to be accurate. But why would one upload all this personal data?
The answer is easy -- not only do humans want convenience (being able to get your address book from anywhere), but as Mark Pincus, CEO of Tribe.net, told me "people want to socialize online." It was perhaps only a matter of time before advancing technologies had a significant impact on personal networking. But what about the privacy concerns?
As it happens, many of America's privacy advocates are using these services. Some of them are connected to me through these networks and can be seen by my friends, whom they may or may not know. It goes to show that even privacy activists sometimes value communication more than privacy. But it's possible they might change their minds, particularly if FBI agents were to convince one of the social networking sites that it's their national duty to share information on users.
For his part, Pincus said he wouldn't release data to federal agents without a warrant. Friendster representatives echoed that stance. Perhaps the recent controversy over an Army contactor's use of Jet Blue passenger data is enough to scare corporate types away from co-operating with government meddling out of patriotism, but once the data's there, it can be used.
FBI agents could log on to Friendster as "Fraudsters" (people pretending to be someone they're not) or eventually some sort of monitoring software could be forcibly installed to gather data, like the FBI's Carnivore box that is installed at ISPs to monitor email traffic.
With the existence of government, corporate, and now individual-created databases, the answer to the future of privacy is fairly clear - there will be less of it. But as sites like Friendster and Tribe.net show, less privacy is a choice of many, indicating a more relevant question: how data centers affect our liberties.
It's not the exposure of information that matters as much as who is using it and how. Government is different from corporate and personal contacts in that it has a monopoly on force, so it must be carefully monitored or restricted. The way to secure liberty is through limits put on government by a free people who pay attention and continue to be outraged at schemes like the TIA, the MATRIX system, and other plans to monitor Americans.
As a recent Markle Foundation report said, "government should not have routine access to personally identifying information even if it is widely available to the public." And restrictions that are put on government use of data should be enforced.
For instance, a new program to track visitors to the U.S. with fingerprints was almost deployed without a privacy assessment, as required by the E-Government Act of 2002. Sen. Joseph Lieberman brought this problem to the public's attention, but had he not done so, the matter could have disappeared, allowing America to slip towards a place where governments find it easier to use data for purposes other than reasonable law enforcement.
Liberty, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, resides in the spirit of the people. If American culture continues to support individual rights and reject big brother, it won't matter how much personal information is out there.