Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mining Your 1,984 Digital Streams [UPDATED!]

Now, I'm no conspiracy theory lunatic (although I did enjoy Oliver Stone's 1991 movie JFK), and I'm not one of those hyper-paranoid-the-government-is-out-to-get-you types - but with more and more of our data being stored and shared "on the web", "in the cloud"... (insert your favorite phrase here) things are slowly lining up for a 1984-esqe senario. You know 1984... as in "Nineteen Eighty Four", the novel written in 1948 by George Orwell.

Yeah, I know it's a stretch - but follow along here:

Most people use social media and routinely post personal pictures (some VERY personal), update their network of friends on where and when they are vacationing, the fact that they're sick (and what the illness is), and other tidbits of their life stream. A lot of people use free or subscription-based document services like Google Docs, Google Spreadsheets, Zoho Office,, DropBox, etc to create, share and collaborate on documents. A lot of people use free online screen-sharing services, video conferencing, voice over IP (VOIP) services and other tools that convert realtime voice and video into a digital stream that goes over the public Internet.

People do online banking, paying bills online. They get their email via web-based tools. They buy and download electronic books, music and games. They read their news (and gossip) online. They rent movies and stream them down to their electronic devices. And, as I mentioned last week - the "next big thing" will be mobile payments - so we can pay electronically rather than bothering wtih those "pesky" plastic cards and (gasp!) that grubby, "old school" cash.

There are a ton of "location-based" services like maps that use your current location to help you get to another location, or help you find the nearest Starbucks. There's applications like Foursquare that let you "check in" to let people know where you are. President Obama has mandated (or "encouraged", depending on your point of view) that all medical records be converted to electronic format by 2014 (with penalties starting in 2015 for non-compliance).

Not to mention the fact that most of us have direct deposit - where our paychecks are deposited electronically, we file our taxes electronically, we also get our refunds (or pay our taxes that are due) electronically, we use debit cards that electronically deduct money from our bank accounts. We routinely use services like eBay and PayPal that allow us to buy stuff, sell stuff or transfer money anywhere in the world to anyone with an email address.

The websites that we visit are shared within advertising networks among many different sites under the guise of "providing us with more relevant" advertising. Apple and Google both just got bitch-slapped by the government for tracking the GPS location of every user...

And the list goes on and on...

My point here is this: We are moving a large part of what we do, whom we talk to, what we say, where we go, where we are, what we think, what we buy (and don't buy), what we watch, what we surf, what we pay in taxes, what we see the doctor for... we are all leaving a bigger and bigger digital footprint. It's really only a matter of time until someone, somewhere, figures out how to "link" all these little digital bits together and form a very intimate picture of our entire life. And our kids' lives. And our family's lives. And our friend's lives.

Once that little "token" ties together all our various data streams - then that history can be stored. And data-mined. And, perhaps, someday, monitored. I don't think it's an inevitable conclusion - I don't even think it's likely. Either that, or it's already happening and we're just blissfully unaware of it because no one has created a fancy web 2.0 site with a catchy name for it yet.

Here's to hoping 2084 doesn't look like Nineteen Eighty Four...

[UPDATE 7:56AM] Well that didn't take long. So much for the above thought... Microsoft just got a patent for something it's calling "Legal Intercept" - which allows it to silently (and secretly) intercept, monitor and record Skype calls. Of course they're saying it as to do with CALEA (Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act - you know the law that requires telecom carriers and equipment makers to enable their equipment so it can be used for surveillance purposes by federal law enforcement agencies). Well - if the Feds can do it - so can dictators (or probably that Anonymous hacking group or a 12 year old with a modem)...

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