Michael Battalio

Friday, April 24, 2015

Serious conversations (part 61): Data collection and surveillance - part 2

        This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine. These are my edited responses from that conversation. The sixtieth – sixty-second entries deal with data surveillance.

        Previously I described an anecdotal benefit to data mining and also the first of two problems with even benevolent data mining being with hacking into company databases being so prevalent data that can identify you can easily be obtained. I note a second problem with the collection of consumption data below.

        The second problem with something like a store card tracking you is if that knowledge somehow starts being sent to health insurance companies. Thinking like that might border on paranoia, but imagine how terrible it would be if your health insurer knew what you were eating/drinking. They would up the rates of people who drink too much soda or eat too much junk food, and the rates could change wildly from month to month. You’d be constantly in fear of what you ate. Now in the grand scheme of things that might be great for everyone else. I want people who eat unhealthy things to have to pay more into health insurance, assuming it meant that it could lower my rates, but there is no reason for the insurance companies to lower my rates because I’d have no knowledge of how they increased the rates of everyone else. More likely is that unhealthy eating would just be an excuse to raise rates for everyone. So, for me, there is no way I want the insurance company to have that kind of information. Fortunately, as far as I know there are no health insurance companies gathering that data from grocers. But the fact that it exists must make the insurers salivate for the data, and the fact that it exists opens up the potential for that kind of abuse.
        I’m more worried about tracking of opt-in online activity than some physical activity. Your ISP knows everywhere you go and everything you do on the internet. They can track every single thing you do online, and you have no physical way of stopping them if they decide to invade your privacy since all of the information is stored digitally. I’m especially worried about tracking through google or other services. We are kidding ourselves if we don’t think that google doesn’t know every single thing we’ve done online. Almost every site uses some sort of google ad network or search feature or credential. As soon as we move or travel and use the internet in a normal fashion those services know we aren’t home or have moved. I’m not saying they are doing it nefariously or that they are out to get us, but they do know what we do.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Serious conversations (part 60): Data collection and surveillance

        This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine. These are my edited responses from that conversation. The sixtieth – sixty-second entries deal with data surveillance.

        From my discussion on government surveillance (see My politics parts 4 and 5) it was noted that there can be benefits to data collection, assuming that the collector can be trusted. An example could be store cards offered by grocers and pharmacies that give discounts for logging all items purchased. From that idea I draw several difficulties.
        There certainly are benefits to data mining. With large amounts of user data, companies that develop public products can quickly improve them. The anecdote that comes to my mind is with software updates. I've repeatedly heard the adage that you should never be part of the first group of people to adopt a technology because no matter how much lab testing a piece of software or hardware has gone though, the engineers simply are not going to be able to duplicate all possible situations that a customer base of millions will put a product through. You wait to adopt until after the first release that way all the early adopters will have sent all of their bug reports in, and the engineers will have fixed the unanticipated problems.
        I think that many companies genuinely have their customer's interests in mind if for no other reason that if the customers disapprove of tactics employed by a company (assuming knowledge of shady or underhanded tactics is revealed), they will switch to a competing company. Additionally, a trained analyst may be able to anticipate what we want before we know or be able to discern our desires better than we can. However, we need to specify the difference between collection of data with our express consent and collection without our consent or worse collection after we explicitly deny permission. Each of those possibilities occur.

        There are two problems with data collection via a store card. Both are rather paranoid ways of looking at the world but worth mentioning. The first problem is that even though there are a lot of people in the word, so it is very difficult to track people, each of us is rather unique if enough datapoints are collected. What I mean is if some nefarious entity were able to access your Kroger card information with all of your buying habits, they could at some point in the future dramatically narrow down where you are later assuming consumption habits would later be determined (not necessarily though another store card). Only so many people are going to buy the specific combination of products you frequently buy. This situation is highly unlikely, and the only circumstance I can conjure up where such paranoia could be useful would be if you had to go into a witness protection program. What I'm saying is that every piece of data you surrender (either willingly or unwillingly) becomes a method of tracking you later. Us being regular boring citizens, this is never going to be a problem especially since grocery/pharmacy store cards are opt in.

We cover the second problem in the next entry.
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