Jul 202013

You are being watched. Yes, you, the forty-something harried female in the silver RAV-4, the one with the lacrosse sticker on the scratched back bumper.

A National Public Radio story caught my attention earlier this week about the burgeoning network of police cameras photographing license plates.  A new ACLU study notes that license tag captures are now into the millions, photos captured from law enforcement agencies.

According to the ACLU,  law enforcement keeps these records for an indefinite period, citing the need to track suspicious cars, help bust drug rings or find abducted children.

The creepiest part of this is — over time —  cameras in locations such as police cars, bridges or buildings capture the daily routines of millions of people. Somewhere there’s a huge database of our lives (I’m not even counting the giant repository of data the NSA is building in the Utah desert.)

Add to that the pervasive amount of information we put out there about ourselves, and one has to wonder if anyone has any privacy at all?

Forbes published an article recently how “likes” on Facebook can fairly accurately predict certain personal attributes:

“The report, ‘Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior,’ was just posted on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and is coauthored by David Stillwell and Michal Kosinski of the University of Cambridge and  Thore Graepel, of Microsoft Research in Cambridge.

In the authors’ words, the study shows that, “easily accessible digital records of behavior, Facebook Likes, can be used to automatically and accurately predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes including: sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender.”

Aware that my likes are tracked, I like to mess with Facebook, and have indicated that I’m a champion skier, gamble heavily on the ponies,  drink whiskey daily, and enjoy whacking things with ballpeen hammers.  Oh, and I’m a champion square dancer, along with my husband, the hairy male romance novelist. This makes for some strange ads on the side of my social media.

Then there’s Google, all the time, in your face, everywhere Google.  Eric Schmitt, a previous CEO, got himself in hot water in 2010 during an interview on the short-lived Parker Spitzer Show by suggesting that people who didn’t want their homes photographed for Google maps “just move.”

While it’s probably unfair to dredge up an old quote from the former CEO, the point is still that we are exposed whether we like it or not.  And just exactly what is Facebook, Google, the NSA, and other data collectors doing with all this information?

Does this worry you?  There really isn’t much we can do.

Is this what we bargained for with the plethora of electronic systems and devices available to us; do we automatically consent to a lack of privacy when we sign on? And what about the spying we don’t agree to?

My local  community is now almost completely on electronic medical records, a giant spider’s web of personal data  that scares the hell out of me. Yesterday at a routine doctor’s visit, I received a print-out of my records and there were prescriptions on there I hadn’t taken since “Friends” was in prime time.

I needed a new allergy prescription and the practitioner assured me that I didn’t need that little piece of paper from an obsolete prescription pad.  The RX floated to the pharmacy via the magic cloud, and would be ready for my pick-up later that afternoon.  Guess what?  They never heard of me.

I called back to the medical office and after being put on hold twice (hung up the first time, as I was on a cell phone), the receptionist said she would look into it.  I worry about who sees my private medical records.

While my personal anecdote is only that, a personal anecdote, it illustrates  that we are very free with our information, and where it floats away.  (As part of the move to electronic medical records, the doctor’s receptionist had me sign a paper privacy policy, and then sign a second sheet affirming I had signed the privacy policy.)

Do I want drug dealers caught and abducted children found? Yes.

Do I want an efficient healthcare system that focuses on healthcare and less on system?  Yes

But, at what cost?  Only the shadow knows.  — Originally published on The Broad Side.

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