Yay, it’s Data Privacy Day!

January 28th, 2010 by Grace Meng

As sponsored by, among others, Google, Microsoft, Lexis-Nexis, and AT&T.

Lexis-Nexis, for those of you who are not lawyers and journalists, is an amazing tool for doing research on court decsions, regulations, statutes, and other legal matters.  It is also a great way to investigate people, comb through property records, and more!  In a way, though, the information it stores is pretty private, at least to the extent that it’s so expensive to access, it’s not available to the vast majority of people.  Which makes me wonder, how much is Lexis-Nexis worried that its product is becoming less valuable because more and more of their information is available elsewhere for free?

Which leads me to the crux of the problem.  Privacy, a word for which very few people can agree on a definition, is nevertheless a real issue these days.  But the reason it’s become such a pressing concern isn’t only because surveillance technology has gotten better or more pervasive.  It’s also because more information is available everywhere.  Re-identification from supposedly anonymized databases wouldn’t be so easy if other data sources, like DMV records, weren’t so readily available.  In addition, the Internet is teeming with information we want to provide ourselves, through Facebook, PatientsLikeMe, Mint.com, which we do not just because we’re exhibitionists, but because we get value from sharing that information and seeing what others have shared as well.

We want privacy.  We want information.  How are we going to reconcile these two very legitimate desires?  Will there be trade-offs?  Can we really have it all?

We’re definitely not in the camp of “We’ll never have privacy, let’s throw out the data!”, nor the camp of “Privacy’s gone anyway.”  So yes, we do think we can have a lot, if not “all.”  And to do that, we need to move beyond talking about privacy and information in the abstract.  We need to look at specific areas — like electronic health records, campaign finance, government transparency — and be concrete about what we lose and what we gain with every decision we make.

Data Privacy Day may be “an international celebration of the dignity of the individual expressed through personal information,” but let’s be honest.  Dealing with these questions will be interesting, but it isn’t going to be a party.

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