Be on the wave or under it
The News – 08/06/01
The Cashless Society and Your Privacy
The recent SNS article, Wireless and Cashless, provoked a response from Alert SNS Reader John Skach. During an email exchange, we debated whether the dual technologies of wireless position-sensing (the ability to find you by tracking your cell phone) and cashless transactions (the ability to track your purchase behavior) represent a slippery slope toward Big Brother-ism. I expressed the opinion that I almost preferred the government knowing more about me than corporations, because there’s at least some possibility of controlling what the government does with the information. John begged to differ. The following is an edited version of his response, which brings up some of the issues around our use of these new technologies.
For the commercial side - no I don't mind. There are strong market forces at work there. First time they screw up and expose me to something insidious, they're toast and they know it. Despite all the hoopla surrounding online credit card transactions, more fraud occurs from retail personnel lifting numbers and names during physical activity than any bad stuff on the web. Something funny actually happened when someone pointed out that little fact to the credit card agencies: Suddenly the carbons disappeared - almost overnight.
On the other hand . . .
When my ex-wife went thru five years of hell with breast cancer, we didn't get the genetic test done for a reason. Given her heritage (Ashkenazi Jew), there is a 75% chance she would have tested positive on the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 [breast cancer gene] tests. However, since we had no idea what that information may do to our daughter's future insurance eligibility - we didn't get the test done. Hell, we already knew my ex-wife had cancer. That family history alone at some point in my daughter's life will give her problems with insurance companies.
The government - now that's a whole other story. Twenty-dollar bills are popular for a reason. There are pros and cons to all information trading. Gee if I could get rid of my yearly nightmare of tax filing by sharing a tad more information (what exactly remains to be seen), I would most certainly allow that information to be gathered.
Amex is probably on the right track with the one-time credit card numbers but I'm not sure where that goes.
Each day we make little decisions about how much of our privacy to release and how much to hold back. There is a constant trade off of effort and convenience. The price we pay more and more is that little bit of privacy. How do we stay connected and keep it? Use garbage email accounts like Yahoo Mail or Hotmail, or anonymous IP address providers. How much do you want to spend versus what you get? [I particularly like this point. We should all put a value on our personal information and consider giving it up as a form of spending that we watch as closely as any other spending.]
Don't know that this is all that new a thing actually. The woman I am dating is from a small town outside Peoria. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, just knows that she is dating a drug dealer from Chicago who drives a BMW instead of a mild-mannered software engineer with great taste in cars. <wink, wink> How much privacy is there really in a small town where everyone knows everyone's business anyway? Metropolitan life offered privacy simply through the ability to lose oneself in a crowd. Nowadays though, one of the script kiddies’ favorite things to do is to bang on your next door neighbor’s IP address on the shared broadband connection and see just exactly what is on their hard drive. I used to watch all the attempts on my firewall when I was connected via cable instead of DSL. Was kind of funny. The moral equivalent of school kids peeking in windows to see if it's true about what they heard about the young school teacher's evening entertainment.
This reminds me of a similar point about window peeping, made in John Keller’s rant, Big Brother:
The socialist's dream of constant observation as a means of people control is arriving, albeit 17 years behind Orwellian schedule. Like Will Smith, in “Enemy of the State,” the g-men know where we are, and what we are doing at all times. Well, not at all times, just when we're in “public”. So far Tampa and Virginia Beach are the only two cities stupid enough to announce what they're actually doing. No doubt some cities with “traffic cameras” propped up all over the place have designs or have already linked similar software to track specific vehicle or personal movements from camera to camera. All to more safely design highways, and understand traffic patterns, you see. We're Government, and we want to serve you, our customer! [For a more insidious potential threat, there’s a company building video capabilities into highway lane reflectors. I profiled them in my speech, The Next Wireless Killer Apps: Will You Have to Have It?]
Finally, people are starting to wake up. The apologists' argument for this system usually goes along the lines of “If you haven't done anything wrong, you don't have any reason to object to it.” Sure. Why don't we let stalkers and Peeping Toms use the same argument in court? Because it's an invasion of privacy. The folks in the streets, the ones who know Soviet-style thought control when they see it, understand that this changes the dynamic completely. You aren't considered innocent until proven guilty under this system. You have no right to privacy, not in public at least, and the government is a master of making the steepest slippery slope arguments look prophetic in hindsight.
A pet peeve of mine is the response I often get when I bring up privacy concerns: “Well, I don’t do anything illegal, so I don’t really care.” What you do is not illegal yet. And I’m sure you never, ever, exceed the speed limit, or take too many items into the express checkout lane at the supermarket. Anyway, John Skach wraps up:
I’m not saying that the loss of privacy is good, merely observing that once again the pendulum swings.
Unfortunately, the pendulum could stay swung, especially if Microsoft’s HailStorm service takes over authentication and user information validation services on the Internet. The service is based on Microsoft’s Passport service, which, by the way, you have to sign up for if you want technical support from the software monopoly. Passport stores information about users—ranging from their address to their credit card numbers to their favorite Web sites—on server farms operated by Microsoft.
So what’s the big deal? Microsoft plans to charge you for access to your own information, that’s what. According to Summit Strategies, “It expects to charge an as-yet-undetermined subscription fee to HailStorm customers and also to charge some usage-based fees—for example, fees for customers that require more than a base-level storage capacity for their Web-based data and documents.” That’s some catch, that Catch-22. Other problems with the proposed service include the vulnerability of a single location that stores important information to not only typical Web site glitches, but also to hackers.
- Shameless Self-Promotion Dept. Correction: I'll be speaking at the Minnesota Entrepreneurs Club pre-meeting workshop at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 14th in St. Paul, MN, not the 7th as previously announced. The meeting is at the Minnesota Business Academy. My topic is “Will You Have to Have It? What You Need to Know About Future Tech and Your Business.”
- Metricom Out of Business: Success has many fathers; failure has many analysts. Ricochet sounded like such a good idea: Offer 128Kbps wireless Internet access in major metropolitan areas. That’s more than twice the speed of dialup modems. Who wouldn’t want it? Well, lots of folks, it turns out. They stayed away in droves, and now Metricom, after filing Chapter 11 only a month ago, is quitting business. The analysts are in a feeding frenzy, trying to determine how a can’t miss proposition went south. Some blame the price, $70/month. Some blame the positioning: It probably wasn’t smart to target consumers rather than businesspeople. Whatever the reason, some lucky company can receive a potential windfall as the entire Ricochet wireless network, which consists of 17 wired cities, the company's patents, its spectrum and its subscribers, goes up for auction August 16th.
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