Former Sun Microsystems (news, site) CEO Scott McNealy is credited for stating: "Privacy is dead - get over it!" And while being reminded that our confidentiality is quickly drowning in the digital age can't hurt, whether or not we should "get over it"--or better yet, whether or not we even have a choice--is now at the forefront.
For example, analyst Seth Schoen recently published an article in the Electronic Frontier Foundation highlighting research from Carnegie Mellon computer science professor, Latanya Sweeney. Sweeney found that the mere combination of gender, zip code and birthday was unique for 87% of the U.S .population. Meaning? All those "anonymous" surveys we fill out from time aren't so anonymous after all.
The Case of Mr. X
Mr. X lives in ZIP code 02138 and was born July 31, 1945.
Sweeney plugged these three seemingly innocuous facts, released to the public in an anonymous medical record, into the Massachusetts voter registration database. The singular result was William Weld, the governor of Massachusetts in the 90s.
This proves that if you live in the United States, there's a pretty big chance that you don't share all three of these attributes with any other U.S. resident. And that means that if an individual has a handful of trivial information about another individual, there are resources out there that can chew on that information and spit out much more traditional and corresponding identifiers--like name and address.
Personally Identifiable Information
Personally identifiable information (PII) is a concept used by many organizations' privacy policies. It addresses identifying information and considers that data more sensitive than information traditionally thought of as inconclusive. The identifying information receives dramatically higher protections under privacy laws such as health, financial and telecommunications regulations.
But Sweeney's findings prove that there is little difference between obviously identifying info and seemingly banal variables. If this upsets you, you can slap your Internet connection on the wrist, as it is the biggest culprit in this era of deanonymization: apart from demographic combinations, other surprisingly identifying info reportedly includes an individual's search terms; purchase habits; preferences or opinions about music, books, or movies, and even the structure of social networks.
We Are More Different Than We Think
The obvious problem here is that typical privacy laws haven't yet caught up to the revealing digital age, and the side effect is that we can be identified by almost any kind of data.
Don't panic just yet. Schoen assures us: "...people can potentially be re-identified by these kinds of data, not that everyone will be." And, "Not everyone's medical records were as easy to put a name to as Governor Weld's."
Well. Thank goodness for that.
Still, this opens up an interesting conversation, don't you think? Now is probably a good time to start talking about what privacy means in the 21st century. Is it a luxury we can expect to be afforded in this day in age, and, if not, what kinds of issues does this development unearth?