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This blog is now defunct, but you can find more stuff over at my personal site

Anticipating The Future Of Online Privacy

Kid in tinfoil hat
You can keep out the aliens’ mind-control rays, but once your photo’s online they’ll hunt you down with Google Image Search. (Photo credit: r3v || cls)

A bloke I knew got online at college in his late teens and stumbled upon Usenet. No global search existed and most users gave little thought to how content might be stored, indexed or repurposed in the future, viewing it as an ephemeral medium.

Years later, Deja News came along and pulled together a public Usenet archive. If you searched for the bloke’s name it found messages discussing WWF wrestling and enthusiastically requesting porn; nothing unusual for a teenager, but probably not what you want your name linked to forever. Eventually Google bought the archive, but luckily for him it tucks Groups results away separately.

I try to not be overly paranoid about privacy, but having a certain amount of control and awareness is sensible, and I do think an awful lot of people are going to wish they’d been more cautious. Part of the problem is that advances in technology and attitudes will continue to change the nature of indexing/searching, making it tricky to consider future implications.

So what imminent privacy threats/encroachments should perhaps be influencing our current behaviour? Here are some that come to mind:

Improved analysis
Many fragments of data aren’t currently connected, or are considered too trivial to bother scrutinising closely. Your photos’ EXIF data can say a lot about who you are and what you’re doing.
Databases going online
More and more sources are being integrated into online databases; just because something is currently standalone/offline it doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way, however old or defunct it may be.
Realtime updates
By following status updates, a profile of you and your activity can be continuously improved. Your Twitter stream might be innocuous in itself, yet intrusive when tied into numerous other sources within seconds.
Company mergers/cooperation
Data about you at sites A, B and C might be fine when kept separate, but highly sensitive if combined.
Changes in attitudes/legislation
The views of the overall population will evolve over time, possibly resulting in weaker protection not just for new activity but also data you’ve already generated, whether you like it or not.
Government access
There’s already a lot of government data mining and surreptitious snooping, and it can surely only become more widespread and blatant.
Leaks/abuses/mishaps
Companies can become unscrupulous, hackers and employees can steal data, and sometimes people do silly things. You might trust your favourite social networking site with your personal information at the moment, but will all future owners take the same amount of care? Forever?
Text/speech/face recognition
This is already starting to happen, so you should consider any audio/video/photographic content you put online to be machine-readable. Your friends won’t need to tag you manually in that embarrassing photo that might jeopardise your budding political ambitions.

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