Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Beware Data Aggregation: the New ‘Big Brother’ Meme 

The word ‘meme’ means ‘idea’ or ‘concept’ and in colloquial use is generally used when discussing the viral transmission of ideas.

I first came across the idea of memes via mid-90’s Wired Magazine articles about Richard Dawkins and in Neil Stephenson’s seminal cyberpunk opus of that period, Snow Crash. Stephenson posits that religion is a virus and that the brainstem can be hacked linguistically in order to program behavior. (For the esoterically inclined readers of this site, this was precisely the driving concept behind the neurolinguistic programming (NLP) movement that grew out of Milton Erickson’s hypnosis work.) Stephenson’s work subtly and effectively foreshadows all of the current and insidious waves of fundamentalism under the guise of sci-fi fun.

In the late 90’s, I hooked up with Bruce Kasanoff. At the time, Bruce was focused on the use of data to delight customers via personalization. And the good folks at places like Amazon have employed the ideas that Bruce was pioneering to good effect since then. But that was then.

In early 2005, I have noticed that there is a form of ‘big brother’ meme that is growing and mutating in the American cultural Petri dish. It is focused on the fear of the potential abuses of privacy as it regards data and personal privacy and, perhaps much more importantly, liberty. This meme focuses on and promulgates concerns about a post-Patriot Act, post-Homeland Security America where both government and business organizations are aggregating large databases for disparate purposes but with similar results: intimate knowledge of American citizens used without any kind of checks and balances in ways that could wreak classic Michael Crichton-style havoc.

Examples of the meme mutating and expressing itself in various media are Robert O'Harrow Jr.’s book No Place to Hide (Amazon and NPR interview). On the web, there is a proliferation of websites that document where the both government and privately owned surveillance cameras are. The most interesting expressions of concern to me, however, are two thought pieces published on the Internet, snarkmarket’s EPIC animation and the ACLU’s “Pizza Palace” animation. I recommend watching them both because they are well done and they express different facets of this new meme.

Watching the EPIC piece, I thought that given that certain industries have so successfully blurred the line between government and business, e.g., the frequent shifting of players from the military, government contractors, and the federal government itself, it's not surprising that some people are wondering when an economic power like Microsoft will become a threat of some sort. Part of what interested me about the EPIC story is that it had not yet occured to me that I should worry whether Microsoft is a threat beyond the sphere of capitalism.

The ACLU piece surprised me less. Government collects information, government abuses information. The J. Edgar Hoover story redux, right?

So now that I have been exposed to various strains of this big brother meme, I cannot help but wonder just how concerned should I be about data aggregation and my personal liberties. I think to myself, “I’m not a terrorist. What do I have to fear?”

And then I remember when in the aftermath of 9/11 a Pakistani colleague of mine raised money to take out an ad in the New York Times in order for his Pakistani friends to broadcast their solidarity with America. The result? The FBI saw a lot of transfers of small amounts of money into his bank account from Pakistanis (individual contributions for the very expensive full page ad) and showed up at his door for several days running to ask questions.

So if Homeland Security or any other government agency/contractor is aggregating my personal data, might it look suspicious? And if it does, can I be assured that I will have recourse to an attorney?

Say…this new meme is infectious.
As the founder of a company that was granted the patent for online personalized account aggregation services in 1996, I have a pretty good sense for this issue. Unfortunately for astute readers of The Evangelist, Scott McNealy's famous quote about "You have no privacy - get over it" is pretty much the deal here. Frankly I fear the government much less than I do well-intentioned marketers who will pay Microsoft a lot of money to know that I pay a big premium for organic cottage cheese every week.
As a counterpoint to the Big Brother meme, and as Tony's buddy proved at Amazon and elsewhere, there are certainly many virtues to data aggregation-powered offerings and services. Hey, it's just a big CRM-like system to help companies serve you better and, unfortunately, remove any chance of serendipity in the targeting process.
My guess is that the existence of a data aggregation meme in the "American cultural Petri dish" pretty much ensures that a check and balance system will be put in place prior to catastrophy, or that when any real abuse starts to manifest itself, the intelligensia's antenna will catch it early and demand controls.
So here's a great twist of irony: Bank of America just announced that they LOST their backup tapes that had the personal data of 1.2 million federal employees. (http://tinyurl.com/47tpz)

A further variant on the Big Brother meme is concerns about data aggregation, security and identity theft. A fun development in this arena is that Choicepoint, a company that sells personal data to landlords and employers, said last month that it had ACCIDENTALLY sold personal data on 145,000 people to thieves last year AND that the information was used to steal the identities of at least 750 people. (NYT.com)
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