Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Orwellian Worries

Apparently, the Information Commissioners Office investigated Google in 2012 and received assurances that the company was not intentionally collecting personal information about people in the UK. However, during the course of the investigation, it did become clear that the company has the capacity to intercept and store information from the content of e mails, chatrooms and other social media sites and photographs. Now, the USA Federal Communications Commission has published a report (about a month ago) that suggests that the street view software, gstumbler, used by Google to collect information such as that needed for maps, was in fact, designed to gather information of a personal nature and has the capability to give rise to data bases which could support future Google products. Google's stated strategy has long been to tailor the information it gives its users ever more personally. Just what does Google know about our buying habits, travel patterns, financial transactions, friendships and illneses? In particular, networks that are not secured by passwords are vulnerable. Of course, we're not talking about knowing in the sense of indiviual people knowing things about other individual people - we're talking, perhaps more worryingly - about the power of vast amounts of knowledge to shape behaviour. 

Frankly, in a digital age this kind of thing is unavoidable. The garnering of personal information needs new types of policing and we need draconian penalties for those who misuse rather than simply collect data. The most worrying areas are finance and medicine. Although I cheerfully use digital communication for most things, I am a Ludite when it comes to banking. Not for me the trust that hopes that online (or worse mobile phone) arrangements will hold: give me a passbook in my hand and a personal conversation over the counter any day! In the medical field, I  have a friend who went to the doctor for a routine blood check and was refused on the grounds she'd already had it done. Investigation showed that someone, somewhere had fed someone else's blood results into her records. Mental note - if your doctor tells you something a little strange, check, check and check again!

However, the main point of what I want to say is that in a digital age where we all enjoy so many of the benefits of instant access to information, we each have to accept some responsibility. In fact, we retain much of the power to decide what we reveal, say and do online and what information we are willing to give about ourselves. Saying 'no, I won't give you that information,' may mean we can't have something but is that necessarily a problem?  Ingenuity can usually find a way round it. Or perhaps we don't need something as much as we think we do! We don't have to shop or bank online and we don't have to take the slightest bit of notice of adverts (I don't even read them). Above all, we have the power to control what we say: to ensure it's courteous and doesn't name others or drag them into digital places they don't want to be in and have no control over. Time is a crucial factor in retaining the power to regulate ourselves in digital space. As everything speeds up (banks say that people now expect immediate responses to requests for mortgages and loans, for example) we need to cultivate in ourselves and our children the resilience to resist the immediate. Take a space to think. Cool off overnight. Withdraw from a site. Restrain yourself from responding if you don't really need to. And keep challenging - asking qustions, 'Why do you need to know that about me?' 'Where did you get that information from?' 'Why is that linked to this?'

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