What do Jim Gibbons and Eliot Sptizer Have in Common? Not a great deal, except that they, like the rest of us, have had their daily movements electronically tracked and recorded, and because they did, acts they considered to be private became public.
Spitzer, the former Governor of New York, was caught purchasing sex because the women he purchased it from were top-of-the-line prostitutes, and therefore he had to move large sums of money in order to pay them. The pattern of money movement suggested money laundering, which he was not doing, but it nonetheless brought him to the attention of the IRS.
Gibbons sent text messages to a recipient in whom the Nevada media has a prurient interest because of his pending divorce, and his rumored involvement with another woman. In an unfortunate failure of best practices, he used his government-issued phone, and the records belong to the public.
Could similar records have become available to law enforcement and the media before the advent of hand-held text messaging devices, and before banks had the powerful database technology employed for know-your-customer tracking? Certainly. But the two events spotlight the practical privacy concerns we all ignore every time we digitize our daily affairs.
Every single day, we sign away our privacy in return for the joy and convenience offered by technology. The average person makes the tradeoff multiple times a day, and is utterly cavalier about the possible consequences. It happens from the time you wake up until the time you go to sleep.
iTunes, for instance, knows you’re a dweeb who listened to the most pointless song ever recorded — Come on Eileen by Dexy’s Midnight Runners — 43 times in one week. Yahoo and Google also know what you like, if you know what I mean. Important or not? You never know until it becomes important.
Some years back when geo-tracking devices became widely available in cars, the Reasonable Reporter predicted, only half jokingly, that it would become more difficult to keep an extra-marital affair from coming to light. Not that the Reasonable Reporter condones extra-marital affairs, but she is a fan of privacy, and assumed that a large number of people would relate to the example. And there was certainly a point to be made that whatever convenience the service might provide, tracking every spot on the planet one chooses to visit could have a down side.
This was after the potential abuse of grocery store shopper cards was already being discussed. Recall the divorce attorney who delved into the ex-husband’s supermarket records, and made a successful case that if the guy could afford premium wines, he could afford more child support.
These developments seem primitive by current standards. The Las Vegas Review Journal reported this week that “Microsoft and Harrah’s just announced an interactive bar table that lets patrons order drinks, watch YouTube videos, play touch-screen games, and even flirt with each other.” The program will remember your favorite drinks, and facilitate snapping photos and swapping phone numbers with attractive strangers.
Hmmm… It’s almost impossible to count the ways this could become damaging on the morning after, or on some morning thereafter. Databases never forget.
Security agents at McCarran Airport are getting a detailed look inside your clothing. Anyone want to bet long it will be until those images end up on a website?
Soon, we’ll have toll roads. We will have them because it’s folly to think we’ll give up our cars, and it’s greater folly to think that the government can continue to spend a million dollars a mile to build a road, and still keep up with demand. We won’t and it can’t.
You’ll have a bar code on your bumper, scanned by a toll road reader to tax you by the mile. Or maybe an RFID chip. It will know where you went, what time you were there, and how fast you were going, but the speed check will be redundant, because of the black box under the hood, which the insurance companies are already lobbying to make standard.
There’s more. So much more. None of this is to bemoan greater use of high-tech devices. Technology makes us faster, richer, better and smarter, and we benefit from it every day. We just need to learn to be smarter than the people who own the databases.