Scary pizza

June 17th, 2008 by Grace Meng

My friend sent this to me recently. Created by the ACLU for its campaign against the National ID program, it’s a mash-up of all our worst surveillance fears. It starts with a guy calling his local pizzeria for a couple of double meat pizzas, while you see the computer screen the girl at the pizza place is looking at as she rings up his order. She surprises him first by knowing his name, his home address, and his place of work from the moment his call comes in, but it gets rapidly worse, from a $20 health surcharge for meat pizza because of his high cholesterol and blood pressure to her snide comments about his waist size and his ability to pay for the pizzas, based on what she knows of his purchase history, including airplane tickets to Hawaii.

It’s entertaining, but also frustrating for a couple of reasons. First, there are very good reasons for me to be concerned about private companies’ data collection and their potential for collusion in U.S. government surveillance, but this video doesn’t explain how the National ID program would lead to the pizzeria having my health records. By focusing only on the sensational horror of the pizza girl knowing the customer bought a bunch of condoms, it forgets to tell us the pizzeria might literally be giving their customers’ names, phone numbers, and addresses to government officials. (The ACLU does have this report providing a more detailed argument about the dangers of private-public surveillance, but there was no direct link to it from the pizza video.)

Second, in terms of data collection and its dangers in general, the video ends up feeling sort of hysterical. It obscures, rather than clarifies, what’s really at stake.

We do live in a world where data collection is happening on an unprecedented level. But for me, what’s scary is not the mere possibility that all this data could get linked together. It’s about control. Do I get to decide who has my information? Do I get to control how it’s disseminated and analyzed?

Right now, we definitely don’t and that’s a problem. But the solution may not be to stop data collection altogether and segregate all the information out there so no linkage can happen ever.

I might not want the pizza girl at my local pizzeria to know about my health problems, but I might not mind if, as I ordered food online, the program allowed me to review my choices and build a more a nutritious meal specific to my needs, without disclosing my specific preferences to each restaurant. I might not want the government to be able to access my purchase history, but I might want to be able to securely track and access my purchases and my financial accounts at the same time so I can better determine how well I’m meeting my budget. I might even want to share certain information, securely and anonymously, if I thought it would lead to beneficial research by scientists, economists, and policymakers.

Of course, I wouldn’t sign up for anything if I thought my personal information could get leaked to the government or anyone else without my consent. It would make for a somewhat less dramatic video, but this is what the Common Datatrust Foundation is interested in addressing—how can we turn our capacity for data collection and sharing into something that is a public good, rather than a scary fear?

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