Monday, February 25, 2008

The Anonymity Experiment

Can you live in a big city without leaving traces? Who is watching you and what you do?

2006, David Holtzman decided to do an experiment. Holtzman, a security consultant and former intelligence analyst, was working on a book about privacy, and he wanted to see how much he could find out about himself from sources available to any tenacious stalker. [...] When he put the information together, he was able to discover so much about himself—from detailed financial information to the fact that he was circumcised—that his publisher, concerned about his privacy, didn’t let him include it all in the book.

[...] Last year, 127 million sensitive electronic and paper records (those containing Social Security numbers and the like) were hacked or lost—a nearly 650 percent increase in data breaches from the previous year. [...] Last November, the British government admitted losing computer discs containing personal data for 25 million people, which is almost half the country’s population.


It was strangely calming, standing in this dim room, watching the words and thoughts of strangers reveal themselves to me. I still had my hat on, but for once there were no surveillance cameras, so I sat down on a bench in the room and pulled out my notebook, grateful to finally be the observer rather than the observed. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her: a security guard standing in the room’s darkened corner—silent, motionless, watching.

Unlike some, I'm not ready to give up on privacy in the information age. I'm with this important essay by Bruce Schneier:

We've been told we have to trade off security and privacy so often -- in debates on security versus privacy, writing contests, polls, reasoned essays and political rhetoric -- that most of us don't even question the fundamental dichotomy.

But it's a false one.

Security and privacy are not opposite ends of a seesaw; you don't have to accept less of one to get more of the other. Think of a door lock, a burglar alarm and a tall fence. Think of guns, anti-counterfeiting measures on currency and that dumb liquid ban at airports. Security affects privacy only when it's based on identity, and there are limitations to that sort of approach.

Since 9/11, approximately three things have potentially improved airline security: reinforcing the cockpit doors, passengers realizing they have to fight back and -- possibly -- sky marshals. Everything else -- all the security measures that affect privacy -- is just security theater and a waste of effort.


There is no security without privacy. And liberty requires both security and privacy. The famous quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin reads: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." It's also true that those who would give up privacy for security are likely to end up with neither.

Speaking of privacy... I want this.

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