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Digital spy: how privacy laws can hurt

The most infuriating person on the planet is a man called David Rae. While
people who know me will no doubt be nodding their heads in agreement at this
point, I’m actually talking about David Rae of the David Rae Hair Spa in Petts
Wood, Kent. His only mistake? To come out top in my personal Google ‘ego

If you haven’t yet tried a spot of ego surfing I recommend you give it a go.
Type your name into Google – or whichever search engine you use – and hit enter.
The results can be illuminating, if not a little disappointing. I come in at a
lowly third behind a glorified barber and the head of the Centre for
Entrepreneurial Management at Derbyshire Business School. US photographer, David
Rae Morris, who used to be the World’s most infuriating man, has since dropped
down the league table.

But why is this important? Well, it provides a very straightforward – albeit
limited – glimpse of what’s known as our digital footprint. Each time we use a
computer or mobile phone we are laying down footprints about our behaviour,
which can be pulled together to create a frighteningly accurate and revealing
digital profile.

There are plenty of conspiracy theorists out there who believe that some Big
Brother-type figure is responsible for collating all this data for any one of
several nefarious purposes. Personally, I’m not so sure, but what I am sure
about is that it provides an incredibly powerful resource.

The issue came to prominence in August when AOL was chastised for releasing
the data from 650,000 users’ searches onto a public website for research
purposes. What was no doubt a well-meaning gesture turned into a public
relations nightmare when the 20 million keyword searches were downloaded
thousands of times (the data is still freely available if you’re willing to
spend a few minutes looking).

In a fascinating
published by the New York Times shortly after the data was made available,
AOL user 4417749 (the company had given each searcher a unique number in a
poorly executed attempt to hide their identities) turned out to be 62-year old
American widow Thelma Arnold. “I had no idea somebody was looking over my
shoulder,” she told the New York Times’ journalists who had worked out her
identity from her searches alone.

The philosophical privacy debate at the core of the debacle is almost
impossible to get to the bottom of. Companies of all shapes and sizes have
collected all sorts of information about their customers and potential customers
for as long as commerce has been around. It is foolish to think that we should,
or even could, try to control how much data companies’ collect about their

However, time was when it was easy to recognise when our personal information
was being collected. We would fill in registration forms when applying for
credit cards, magazine subscriptions, job applications…

But with the internet explosion, data collection has become far more
subversive. We no longer know when our actions are being recorded (although a
wild guess would be ‘at all times’) and we know even less about why they are
being recorded and who, or what, is doing the recording.

Of course, one of the most fundamental reasons for why our actions and
behaviour are being recorded is advertising. It is how Google, and an increasing
number of online companies, earn their cash. Targeted advertising equals big
money as companies continue to chase the perfect lead.

But, crucially, it is important to discuss who has ownership of that data. Is
it the organisation that collected it? Is it the organisation that pays for the
privilege to access it? Is it the person who created it (ie, the web users
themselves)? Or is it the government?

The US government, at least, would claim the latter. Earlier this year, it
tried to force Google into providing details of search terms for an
investigation into child pornography. A court rejected the demands, but did rule
that the company had to provide the government with 50,000 web addresses, as
well as the entire contents of a user’s Gmail account.

More recently, a huge debate has emerged about whether the Bush
administration should be allowed to wire tap communications from those with
links to suspected terrorists without any type of warrant. It was something the
government was doing, but which has now been ruled “unconstitutional” by a
federal court.

The issue is only going to get bigger. A recent deal signed between Pipex,
Airspan Networks and Intel has resulted in Milton Keynes becoming the first UK
city to receive city-wide wireless broadband. As a result, while in Milton
Keynes, we could potentially be online all of the time, with a corresponding
explosion in the amount of data being collected as a consequence.

Business has a central role to play in this debate. It is the biggest user of
and creator of consumers’ behavioural information. You would do well to
familiarise yourself with the debate and, more importantly, data protection
laws. I have a hunch that the US government won’t be the only one hauled into
court over the use of private data.

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