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C H A P T E R 1 2 o INFORMATION DOES NOT KILL PEOPLE; PEOPLE KILL PEOPLE An underlying assumption in the privacy debate is that if personal data could be secured properly many of the worst threats to privacy would be a distant memory. Whether a privacy concern involves a case of medical records being revealed, financial information being stolen , or online footprints being sold, personal data is caught in the crosshairs . As a result of this focus, those most zealous about protecting privacy apparently wish that personal data could be hidden away, locked in a Fort Knox–type fashion with the strongest available encryption technology. David Brin spent much of The Transparent Society arguing that this kind of thinking was shortsighted and ultimately flawed. No matter how much security is used, the elites in society will always have the better technology and a greater capability to access protected information. Even if one encrypts data with the strongest standards available, there is always the risk that tomorrow’s computers will expose its secrets to the world. Brin suggests that our best hope is to demand transparency from those who have the keys to our information to make sure they don’t misuse it. The Nosy Neighbor Even if the Fort Knox fantasy somehow became a reality and scientists developed a way to secure data, perhaps using quantum encryption or PAGE 166 166 .......................... 10897$ CH12 08-31-04 10:09:51 PS Information Does Not Kill People; People Kill People 167 • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • some other exotic technology, there would still be one problem— human beings. A misconception in the privacy debate is that the spread of personal data is the result of computers in the information age. There is no arguing that technology helps facilitate the flow of information through society. However, information isn’t limited to just the kind running through fiber optic lines. We often forget in this age of unlimited storage and light-speed data transfer about that other great reservoir of personal data—the human brain. In a society in which people interact with many others during any given day, human beings are just as likely to spread personal information as computers. This hearkens back to the analogy of data exchange as gossip. Just as Amazon.com can learn that you like romance novels, so can the lady at the local bookstore. I call this the Nosy Neighbor Principle . Even though people are more spread out across the country today than in the past, you typically encounter many of the same people on a regular basis. These people know things about you and usually aren’t afraid to share these things with others. The nosy neighbor doesn’t have to be a neighbor. This person can be a policeman, the lady at the local grocery store, someone at the post office, a coworker, and so forth. Anyone who has seen gossip spread among these networks knows that there is some truth to the idea that you are only a handful of relationships away from anyone else in the country. As a result of the Nosy Neighbor Principle, privacy efforts that try to stop the spread of data are usually doomed to fail. No matter how hard one tries to secure electronic data, personal information is still going to be vulnerable whenever humans are involved. In many cases, before data is stored in a secure computer, a person must first enter it. As a result, while information is being locked away in a database table, it’s also being stored in the human equivalent of a database, the human mind. Even if the nosy neighbor didn’t enter your personal data into a database , he or she may have seen you engage in a transaction. For instance, my wife and I just finished buying a house in Virginia. As anyone who has gone through a home purchase knows, it is a complex transaction that involves a number of parties, including the buyer, seller, agents for both parties, the mortgage broker, settlement lawyer, and so forth. Now that we have moved into our new home, our real estate agent lives a few blocks away and the seller’s agent just a few doors down. Although anyone interested in the price we paid for the house could visit the local courthouse and look up the record, I think there is a good chance that gossip in my neighborhood will make the trip unnecessary. PAGE 167 .......................... 10897$ CH12 08-31-04...

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