Simanaitis Says

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SCIENCE MAGAZINE, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has part of its January 30, 2015, issue devoted to “The End of Privacy.” A dozen essays present arguments that Big Data and the Internet are empowering researchers and the public—but, at the same time, endangering privacy.


Essay topics include the challenges of facial and voice recognition, the game of drones, the quandary of public health versus private medical records, the mining of search-engine data, the “right to be forgotten” concept, and a controversy brewing between mathematicians and the federal government’s National Security Agency. Here are some tidbits on the first five of these. Befitting my own academic leanings, I’ll save mathematicians and the NSA as a topic for tomorrow.

It’s you, isn’t it? With increased computer power, the technology of facial and voice recognition has become increasingly prevalent. Eyeball scans are more than sci-fi. Recorded voice patterns can be analyzed and stored for later identification.


“This call may be monitored and recorded…,”, even to saving your ambient background noise. Image from Future Perfect.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits laws that abridge freedom of speech. What’s more, court rulings have expanded this to protect various forms of speech anonymity.

Yet, as soon as you speak on the phone or approach a sales representative in a store, it’s not inconceivable that you will be identified—and a suitable sales pitch selected.

Drones for good and evil. The U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures without warrant. But what constitutes a search? And what’s unreasonable?

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that airways are public property; and anyone can take photos in public. These days, though, photo-taking drones, fascinating though they are, encroach on the line between public and private.


In California, celebrities (and the rest of us) are protected by law limiting paparazzi drones.

A 2014 California law prohibits paparazzi drones from photographing above celebrity properties. In fact, in its more general wording, it protects anyone with “a reasonable expectation of privacy” and clears up the ambiguity of drone access to what might be considered trespassing.

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has already developed drones the size of insects. With anticipated battery miniaturization, the idea of a fly on the wall isn’t far-fetched.

Connecting the (measles) dots? Outbreaks of measles, thankfully mild around the country, have raised the matter of vaccination options. At the same time, there’s a generally beneficial increase in the data base of medical information. To what extent should society be permitted to “connect the dots” of individual behavior to the betterment of public health?

Worse yet, what about hacking of medical matters and devices? A 2012 episode of TV’s Homeland drama featured the vice president’s assassination through terrorists hacking his heart pacemaker.

Laws against this are complicated by recertification regulations at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Thus far, the FDA’s focus has been on reliability and safety, not protecting against malicious use.

Camouflaging your Internet persona. Google, Bing and other search engines collect a mine of information revealed by everyone when we’re online. What’s more, these gatherers are free to share (read: sell) the data.


Offering nuggets for data mining can be avoided.

There’s a way to avoid leaving nuggets to be data-mined: An anonymous search engine, such as DuckDuckGo, doesn’t log its users’ IP addresses, information or search history. According to Science, DuckDuckGo is processing 7 million queries a day, with “traffic spiking after the 2013 revelations about the National Security Agency’s snooping.”

As another approach, researchers at New York University have developed TrackMeNot, a download for Foxfire or Chrome search engines. This NYU-devised software generates decoy search requests to overwhelm any attempts at profiling a user.

Europe has a “Right to be Forgotten.” Privacy is not dead, not as long as Brussels has its way. Notes Science, “In May 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled that European citizens had the right to request that search engines delink results to items that are considered inaccurate, irrelevant, or excessive.”

Note, it’s the link that gets deleted, not necessarily the information. In a sense, this levels the Internet playing field to that of non-electronic searches of public records.

As a counter measure, observes Science, “Data havens could emerge similar to tax havens, in which firms store data in jurisdictions with weak privacy rules.”

Interesting times, indeed. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015


  1. Bill Rabel
    March 4, 2015

    On the subject of Europe, Germany no longer allows Google street view.

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