The ability of any company to ‘mine the mosaic’ of personal data has consequences far beyond individuals’ privacy
An imminent report on an emerging threat to individual privacy to be issued by the European data protection authorities raises even more serious issues than those it is likely to address. The report will consider Google’s asserted right to expand its data mining to combine users’ personal data across all their accounts and services, including Gmail, internet searching, map and location information and photo sharing, with no way for individuals to opt out. At least one technology blogger has accused Microsoft of planning similar changes, while two new Facebook programmes to aggregate user data with other advertising and loyalty card data have also drawn concern. Whatever the merits of each case, the larger issue deserves greater public attention.
There is a powerful reason why cloud services and other data-mining companies aggregate data across multiple accounts and services: the results are extremely valuable. Just as tiny bits of coloured tile can be combined and transformed into a coherent piece of art, tiny bits of seemingly unrelated personal data, when aggregated and mined at huge scale, can provide immense value to advertisers, marketers, corporate sales forces and others. The revenue generated by combining and monetising such data – by mining the mosaic – is the reason “free” cloud services can afford to be free.
Phi Beta Iota: If data is the new oil — or the new wealth of nations — then it makes sense to stop the privatization of data and develop data as a public-private resource. Eric Hughes had the right idea in the 1990’s — all data encrypted at rest, individual ownership of their own data, and then Thin Thread added a nice twist. Mike Nelson famously talked of the US government as 1950’s mindsets with 1970’s technologies coping (then) with 1990’s challenges they could not fathom. What this article makes clear is that all data is part of the commonwealth, and that no classification process exists for rendering unto data that protection that it should have. In other words, secret data is the LEAST important data in the larger scheme of things, and the aggregate data, both public and private, is the real value. Never mind the collusion between Google and the service services in various countries — that is a cost of doing business — it is also irrelevant to the larger needs that Google is failing to meet for diversified distributed data security, data processing, and data analytics, all of which empower end-users one at a time, rather than Google alone.