Friday, January 9, 2009

Data Anonymity

A couple of months ago, a Facebook friend of mine posted a link to a Youtube video where someone was explaining how every piece of merchandise that is sold could be labeled with a "Carbon Quotient" - that is a numerical representation of the amount of carbon generated in the production and shipping of a product. Then consumers could compare CQ's between products to select the most "green" one. I suppose there is an assumption that manufacturers would then try to create "low carbon" products just as they do "low fat" products.

Over the last year or so the media has popularized the idea of selling "carbon credits". The gist of this, that I can tell, is that we are each allotted so many units of carbon we may produce in a year and must pay extra for consuming more. In my mind, it did not seem a stretch to use the idea of a CQ in order to implement a carbon credit system (which really would just be another form of taxation and do nil to "help" the environment). I explained in my response how product data can be cross referenced with a persons credit card history to build a profile and used for analysis. My friend scoffed at this and replied "or, people could just make an informed choice!". Sure, someone will be informed, but it's probably not you and I! We agreed to disagree... when in Rome...

The other day I had to sit in a software demo for an address validation tool. Now I love clean addresses probably a bit more than the next guy but this was dull, even for me. The sales guy- who utterly failed to bring any kind of offering to appease us- showed us how you input addresses and the program validates them against real USPS data. Ok, whoopie... any numbnumb can interact with their web services to do real-time validation.

So how do these seemingly disparate topics relate? Well in the course of his demo, I noticed that not just addresses were showing up. First, there were a few company names intermingled with the lists of valid addresses. "Oh", I thought to myself, "the USPS must be validating company names as well. Hunh... that is only slightly interesting." Then a few minutes later, I noticed there names- the names of real, honest-to-God, Joe-average people. I enquired as to where this data came from and here was his answer:

A credit card company is the parent company of the software company that made these. Credit card companies buy and sell names and so they used this list to build an ever changing, up-to-date database of who lives where- regardless of registration with the USPS. Additionally, any time you subscribe to a magazine, the data gets sold as well. At this point, alarms were going off in my head; black helicopters were circling about; swarms of locusts enveloped the conference room: how could noone else see this????

To me, the only thing this guy validated was the notion that all of our personal data is indeed being "rolled up" and used to profile us for marketing schemes and very possibly even social control. Color me paranoid, but I think it's a good reason to go-green by using cash only. Stick it to the man!


Percussivity said...

After reading the first paragraph I was going to make the comment you made in the last. Enjoy the priviledge of using cash while we can. I can only hope the Lord returns before that small freedom is taken away.

A Pilgrim's Porridge said...


...I agree, but I hate cash so. Is this type of data collected the same way if you use a debit card. I wonder this b/c Eva and I don't actually have credit cards.

Does this make any difference, probably not?

I better start collecting a "seasons-worth" of non-perishable items.

The Angry Coder said...

I would think that the data is still collected in the same manner. The only difference is how the transaction hits your account.

The Unabashed Blogger said...

Cash? What is this "cash" you speak of?