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Privacy: Little Brother

13 March 2008

When it comes to privacy, lots of people worry about Big Brother: the government. I worry as much about Little Brother: corporations. Quite apart from the monitoring they do on their own account, in the US at least the government has been known to buy or subpoena such data.

What brought this to mind was an article in the Wall Street Journal about how Nielsen — the dominant company in television ratings — is going to start gathering data based on set-top boxes. According to the article,

Supporters of set-top-box data say it is more useful to marketers and less burdensome to participants than traditional Nielsen ratings. The set-top boxes cover many more households, and, unlike the panels, researchers don't have to secure agreement from those households to participate.
Clearly, people have no need to consent to having their viewing habits monitored…

Nielsen isn't the only one, of course. I mentioned a few months ago that TiVo is doing the same thing. Several British ISPs are going to monitor user browsing habit, all the better to serve them ads. Major Internet portals track your every move; some could even serve personalized ads.

How about Apple? They will know — and control what software you load onto your iPhone. What will they do with that information?

Private companies such as Microsoft and Google are going into the health records business. Because they aren't health care companies the privacy protections in HIPAA don't apply. What will they do with this data, not so much today as tomorrow?

I could give many more examples, but the trend is clear: corporations are gathering an immense amount of data. In the EU, there are laws regulating this; there are no such laws in the US. That is creating a very large privacy threat.

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