2007: The Year Of Respecting My Digital Rights

2007 is approaching and I’ve been thinking about making it my personal year of digital rights, including privacy, and starting with myself. The first thing I’m about to do is sabotage my Google profile. I now use Google pretty heavily (Docs, Reader and Gmail as well as Search). Google’s bread and butter depends on finding out as much as they can about their users – my profile would be enough to make me a laughing stock, incriminate me in several countries and maybe even get me executed in a few if their leaders were bored enough at the time. For obvious reasons the search engines aren’t queuing up to relinquish their right to profile. Google probably wants to model me, figure out what I want, and then – what – sell the evidence to companies so that they can sell me solutions? Or to politicians so that they can persuade me to vote for them? Offer to subliminally indocrinate me? My entrepreneurial imagination fails me, but I’m not the only paranoid Web user round here.

Back in August, AOL released about 20 million search queries from 650k of its customers without their permission. The most unnerving thing is that although they caved into the outcry and took their own site down, a number of mirror sites had been created in the meantime, at least one of which is still around. On the Web, information practically has a half-life.

So I’m adding Trackmenot to Firefox. This sends off background searches which introduce noise and, in theory, spoil my profile with random data. The bottom few lines of current queries:

twin towers,minimum wage,daniel smith,steve irwin,suri cruise,vanity fair,jack kerouac,nip tuck,dana plato,brady quinn,september 11,brynn cameron,kyra phllips,hurricane john,gillian chung,carolyn kepcher,katie couric,john mayer,serena williams,warren jeffs,sharapova,

It’s worth mentioning that there’s a price to pay for preventing Google from finding out about me, though – it can no longer personalise my experience. The three corners of online personalisation are trust, attention and relevance – the system has lost my trust (not specifically Google which has lost my trust, since it has previously resisted pressure from the US government to hand over data – but the notion of profiling has lost my trust), so I’m no longer giving it the chance to catch my attention. Another side effect of this obfuscation is the invalidation of an enormous body of evidence which, in gathering data which signal our intentions, has an anthropological value as well as a commercial one. As the Trackmenot developers observe “our search behaviours profoundly reflect who we are”.

I’m pretty sure these can be filtered out by Google or whoever – I tend to search for more abstract or conceptual phrases so any natural language processor might be able to make a stab at what was mine, even if they couldn’t be that sensitive about what wasn’t. Configured it to search at a rate of one per minute, so if there are 2 per minute, then one of them isn’t trackmenot, for example. But even so, if search engines persist in profiling us without our permission, the noise and smoke approach to privacy will probably be the only option. There’s also encryption and anonymity e.g. http://anonet.org/, but these take more know-how than the average Web user can muster. The alternative is legislation to protect or destroy our records with the effect of – I reckon – necessitating an entire new business model for Google, Yahoo &tc.

There are implications for Personal Learning Environments which are worth thinking about.

To read: Marx, G.T. (2003). A Tack in the Shoe: Neutralizing and Resisting the New Surveillance. Journal of Social Issues;59(2):369-390.

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