17 Feb 2010
The Institute of Ideas hosted a panel discussion on "Rethinking Privacy in the Age of Disclosure and Sharing." They say,"The increasing reach of information technology into all areas of life, from social networking websites to data sharing in public services, has thrown up a number of questions about privacy. Information about our medical records, financial circumstances and shopping habits is increasingly likely to be stored in electronic media that are out of our control."
In the clip above, panelist Cory Doctorow, editor of Boing Boing magazine, argues that our online search queries are not really anonymous. Companies (such as Google) have a record of our IP addresses and search histories. How is this information being used and can their disclosure bring us harm?
Peter Barron who also participated on the panel and works at Google says that Google is not interested in information about individuals per se. Its interests lie in tracking aggregated information or patterns of information. So, For example, Google can tell that a flu epidemic has emerged long before it is officially announced because people go on the Internet and search for flu medicines two weeks before they go to a doctor.
Nevertheless, Doctorow argues that the "anonymisation" of online search queries is hard to achieve, as it is possible to track back huge amounts of information about people from theoretically anonymous search queries.
For example, there is a company that provides services to parents to help them spy on their children's internet activities, ostensibly to protect the children from sexual predators on the net. However, the company also "anonymises" the children's chat sessions and sells them to market research companies. But, when the "anonymisation" is actually examined, in many cases, the children can readily be identified, argues Doctorow.