Monday, November 25, 2013

Little Data, Big Problem

As a computer scientist, I think about data a lot.

And as someone who is a fairly private person, I'm particularly interested in personal data. Not only my own, but everyone's. I gape at fellow customers at the store who give their phone number and zip code to the cashier without a thought. I am appalled at friends who post private information publicly - photos, geolocation data, their polical affiliation, their religion, their "likes". Everything from restaurant checkins to where they delivered their baby.

I am shocked that people purchase devices that track their physiological data 24/7, data which is automatically uploaded and shared publicly. I am stunned that people voluntarily give samples of their DNA to 23andme.

The shocking thing is when I mention something about this to someone, I receive one of three responses:
1) "I don't care, I have nothing to hide".
2) "Bah. I'm honestly not that interesting."
3) "Well, I know X is evil, but it's just so darn convenient. And anyway, all my friends use X. I can't stop using it now."

Never does someone say, "Wow, FCS, you're right - this data deluge is terrifying! And that anyone with cash can buy all our data willy nilly! Yikes! We should lobby the government to regulate the personal information brokering industry."

Never. Yet one word of the NSA spying snafu and POOF - people freaking out. But I think they're freaking out about the wrong thing.

My security friends talk about threat models. "What's the threat model?". I don't think it's the government. The government is far too monolithic, tech-unsavvy, and sequestered to pull off what we see in the Borne movies. And there's no Machine, sitting in a warehouse in Iowa continually monitoring, processing, and understanding the content of every phone call and surveillance camera feed. That's NP hard.

The threat model is - we have no clue. Right now, any person with the means can purchase a large lot of your private data. If you use a credit card, cell phone, or ATM, ever, you're toast.

When people say, "I don't care, I have nothing to hide." I want to whack them with a #firstworldproblems foam bat. It's not the #FWP people I'm worried about. It's the most vulnerable of our society: those who are abused, those who are stalked. Those who are bullied. Those who simply are not technologically savvy enough to realize they have not only hung their dirty laundry out on their closeline, but their entire existence.

I know what Scott McNealy said. But it still pains me. I think about data a lot.