The Database of Ruin (and sunspots… yes, sunspots.)

Companies all around the world are currently building massive data stores of dirt on their customers. The author argues that eventually any given database will contain some piece of information about you that, if exposed, would ruin your life. As businesses pool their databases, the resulting single supermassive databank will pose a threat to all of us — and we’ll never be able to get rid of it.

The author argues the solution lies in clever engineers coming up with ways to build in privacy protection to data systems from the start. Until they can do that, firms have to start just saying no to privacy invasion.

This is something I’ve been saying on here for a while — so imagine my surprise to see the Harvard Business Review calling for engineers to develop privacy-protecting systems. (I am a little torn on whether the author’s recommmendation for self-regulation can ever be expected to work that well on the sociopath that is the modern corporation, particularly given the apparent success of the EU’s data privacy laws in accomplishing just these goals. And it’s always good for governments to practice protecting their citizens’ privacy.)

Offtopic, but (probably) important — time to invest in ski resort real estate?

“. To try to win, they are building perfect digital dossiers, to use a phrase coined by Daniel Solove, massive data stores containing hundreds, if not thousands or tens of thousands, of facts about every member of our society. In my work, I’ve argued that these databases will grow to connect every individual to at least one closely guarded secret. This might be a secret about a medical condition, family history, or personal preference. It is a secret that, if revealed, would cause more than embarrassment or shame; it would lead to serious, concrete, devastating harm. And these companies are combining their data stores, which will give rise to a single, massive database. I call this the Database of Ruin. Once we have created this database, it is unlikely we will ever be able to tear it apart. […]

I think our brightest engineers can develop innovative privacy-enhancing technologies which will enable new techniques for data analytics that minimize costs to privacy. I hope that public institutions and industry, through self-regulation, will devise ways to better balance the burdens on privacy and the benefits of Big Data. If nothing else, I anticipate that society will slowly develop new norms for engaging with the massive amount of information collected about us, creating informal rules governing when and how it is appropriate to release, collect, and use data, the way minors have learned to speak and listen carefully on social networks.

But every one of these correctives requires the same thing: time. We need to slow things down, to give our institutions, individuals, and processes the time they need to find new and better solutions. The only way we will buy this time is if companies learn to say, “no” to some of the privacy-invading innovations they’re pursuing.”


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