TOC Democracy in the time of listeria Your Turn

September 2, 2008

As Garcia Marquez's novels, current events relative to eprivacy leave the observer strangely bewildered.

Ross Kerber tells us for example how TJX is advocating the "roll[ing] out [of] credit and debit cards embedded with computer chips" to counter "rising losses to fraud" (*). Wait, weren't we told two years ago the topic had been overblown ? Never mind, this is just another cycle of the perpetual emotion engine. Under Ross Kerber's stage directions, we hear a trade newsletter publisher, "fraud levels are completely manageable", and a consultant, "[if you forget] the risk to retailers' reputation and the loss of shopper's confidence [...] your cost-benefit analysis is flawed".

We all live in New Orleans, I declared two years ago speaking about spam. The same holds true for ID theft. The credit card companies make a credible job of holding the dams. Nevertheless we do live below sea level and consumer credit bureaus greedily feed on our feeling of insecurity.

If we find ourselves living a recurrent nightmare while awake, ID theft is not the only reason. Today personalized advertising rests on invading consumer privacy. Desperate of checking Google's rise to leadership, Microsoft has introduced a new version of its browser which "lets users access websites without disclosing their browsing habits". Unfortunately the company is only recycling the old privacy blackmail scheme. As a UK director told Rob Minto (**), "there is a trade-off - meaning that although people's privacy will be protected they will not automatically receive data relevant to their interests". Microsoft, which cannot be bothered with public feedback to the FTC, missed the fact this trade-off is not necessary.

Trapped in a reality wrapped in Newspeak, we can at least seek its hidden meanings.

Take Joe Sharkey's report of poor Michael J. Kirby's traveling travails (***). Despite his best efforts to prove himself harmless, his name stays on the airline blacklist. "The watch-list fandango adds 20 minutes or more to the time required to board a plane". My preferred solution would be to compel airlines to pay him a fee for each inconvenience. To curb wanton exploitation, nothing's like putting a price on free resources, innocent travelers' time in the instance. Meanwhile expect some activist to find how to put the names of her local elected representatives on the list.

Beware though. Mr Kirby is the proverbial canary in a mine whose size is altogether magical.

Our democracy is based today on list enforcement. Enforcing a single, privileged list, whether the nomenklatura or hereditary peerage, already characterizes aristocracies. In a democracy, anyone can recommend a list of one's own making. In our Information Age, where most human relationships are at least partly computerized, recommendation mechanisms are indispensible indeed. However unfortunate for Mr Kirby to receive a negative recommendation from one such mechanism, why turn it into a bad omen for society as a whole?

Check out Bernard Simon's report about a "listeria outbreak at a Toronto meatpacking plant linked to the death of at least six and possibly up to 12 people" (****). In view of economies of scale, modern logistics concentrate processing in few, very large centers. Whether they handle human blood, postal mail, raw vegetables or butcher meat, these centers act as gigantic mixers. Thus can a single disease carrying input spread its deadly charge, be it HIV, anthrax, salmonella or listeria, over a wide output, making it difficult to spot outbreaks right away , let alone track their sources.

Personal information is no different. The airline blacklist is compiled from "databanks maintained by the police, intelligence agencies and various other sources". Similarly most data aggregators deliver personal profiles by mixing scores of inputs. Contaminate a source, apparently random individuals will suffer. If they complain to the relevant agency, how can it fix the problem ? Order an aggregator's client to clean its database? At the next update cycle, the same contaminated data will course again through the system from the hidden data originator.

When it comes to our jobs, credit, reputation, freedom of movement, no recommendation should be given without ensuring profile safety. Food safety requires related industries to be able to trace backward every product to its source, forward every ingredient to its destination. Real eprivacy requires a similar traceability of all profile information. Not for nothing our motto reads "Privacy, Identity, Responsibility".

In today's overbooked flight from responsibility, list making and mixing will grow increasingly corrupt until democracy succumbs to general listeria.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ......... Could this chip have prevented the TJX breach, Ross Kerber (Boston Globe) - August 31, 2008
  • (**) ...... Latest Microsoft browser challenges Google, by Rob Minto (Financial Times) - August 27, 2008
  • (***) .... Sorry, Pal. You're Innocent, But You're Still on Our Lists, by Joe Sharkey (New-York Times) - August 26, 2008
  • (****) .. Maple Leaf strives to contain damage after listeria deaths, by Bernard Simon (Financial Times) - August 27, 2008
September 2008
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