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Immortal — and ubiquitous — digital breadcrumbs
By Scott Bradner, Network World, 09/17/07
The New York Times discussed one effect of today’s information-producing technology in a Sept. 15 article titled “Tell-all PCs and phones transforming divorce.”
The article painted a grim picture — grim for the cheaters, anyway — of the records left lying around if someone decides to cheat on their spouse. The article focused on cell phone records, saved e-mail messages and hacked accounts, but there are lot more digital breadcrumbs we leave behind us, most of which probably will far outlive us.
The job seems to be getting easier for divorce lawyers, at least those not working for people with something to hide. New records are created every time a cheater makes a phone call, buys something with a credit card, sends an e-mail, surfs the Web, drives through an automated highway toll booth, enables an automobile GPS system, or even walks down the street with a cell phone in pocket or purse.
Most of these records are, for practical purposes, immortal. At the very least, most of the records will be there long enough for them to be useful to a spouse or lawyer wanting to find out just what is going on.
Of course, records are not just kept on people who cheat on their spouses. As Bill Gates, among others, knows too well, e-mail is forever. Vast databases are being built up about the activities of us all. Cheap disks mean it is less expensive for data collectors to hang onto data than to think about whether they might have a use for the data years from now. Decades from now, an investigator may be able to find out that you bought whole rather than skim milk at the market last week. Some companies are beginning to pay lip service to the idea that data about the actions of individuals does not need to be immortal, but far too few are doing so.
There are almost no rules in the United States that control access to this building pile of information. The U.S. government has refused to take the same kind of principled approach to the topic that Europe has. One of the few U.S. laws in the area perfectly illustrates this: It is illegal under U.S. federal law to disclose videotape rental or purchase records improperly.
This law grew out of the disclosure of Robert Bork’s videotape rentals during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Rather than require protection of all private records about individuals, however, Congress chose to address this one instance of the underlying problem rather than the problem itself.
So, pay cash and use pay phones if you plan to cheat. On the other hand, if you are one of the data collectors, why not think about what you actually need to know about your customers and how long you need to know it — not to protect cheaters but to delay a little bit the rush to government and universal “Total Information Awareness.”
Disclaimer: As an organization in the education business, Harvard is required to collect certain information, but it has not expressed an opinion about the collection of extraneous information. So the above observation is mine.
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