Privacy and Chaos

Some of you who know me understand that I have a “weakness” for self-organized systems (so-called chaos, scale free networks, etc.) I think that there is real power in analysis of human systems that focuses on agents (that can be people) and how they interact. I also, however, find the unauthorized use of personal identity data by governments to be abhorrent and disturbing

In order to discover patterns of behavior in human systems, a researcher should not need  metatdata that fully identifies people. Metadata should be anonymized/de-identified to protect privacy and unwarranted use of the data. It simply is not necessary to know a person’s name, ssid, etc. in order to create a data set that can be used to discover patterns in human systems. Those of you who have worked with me know some of the techniques for performing such work.

There are people who do want to introduce real identity information into such data for reasons that they think are good. Such people work for marketing organizations, homeland security, even state government agencies. I have learned not to trust such organizations to maintain the privacy of individuals, however. We have all seen examples of breeches in the news. I don’t think that we should tolerate such misuse of data. Maybe it would be OK if we all had the chance to approve use of our data and acknowledge the possibility of misuse in advance. Kind of informed consent. That is clearly not common, however.

I think that Mr. Snowden has done us a real service by publicizing examples of the misuse of data. I encourage you to at least try not to be unknowingly manipulated by clueless or ill-intentioned people and organizations. Most of us are relatively powerless in this arena, but awareness of the issues might help identify situations in which you can have influence. We should not easily give up privacy and the presumption of innocence.

Here are some references that you might find interesting.

(There, I fell better now. – Add your comments.  You can fell better too!)


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