In the mix

March 31st, 2010 by Grace Meng

1) Exciting news!  A diverse coalition of left-leaning and right-leaning organizations, as well as a bunch of big corporations, has formed around the goal of revising the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.  This law, from 1986, clearly didn’t anticipate the world we live in now, the extent to which we use emails, the “expectation of privacy” we have in email, and the extent to which we store our data and our documents in the cloud.  This law will greatly impact our work at the Common Data Project, but even without a professional stake in this, I’d be pretty excited.  After all, we all (except my mom who doesn’t use computers) have a personal stake in this.

2) The full text of danah boyd’s talk at SXSW is available on her blog.  This is my favorite line:

For the parents and educators in the room… Many of you are struggling to help young people navigate this new world of privacy and publicity, but many of you are confused yourself. The worst thing you can do is start a sentence with “back in my day.” Back in your day doesn’t matter.

It’s an obvious but useful point for privacy and information issues in general.  The ECPA from back in the day of 1986 can’t deal with today.  It’s time to really think, which of our assumptions about privacy still hold true?

3) David Brooks’s column this week got me thinking.  If we agree with him, which I do, that a country’s success cannot be measured simply with things like GDP, what else should we measure and how? My friends who work in social sciences are initially skeptical when I talk about the data collection potential of something like the Common Data Project’s datatrust.  They’re distrustful of self-reported data, even as they acknowledge that their existing methodologies are imperfect.  But with things that are hard to measure, self-reporting is often the only way to go.  The datatrust, the Internet, and its measurable guarantees of privacy could dramatically change how self-reported data is collected, analyzed, and published.

4) Facebook data destroyed: Pete Warden, who had created a database from 210 million public Facebook profiles, was prepared to release the data to social scientists who were fascinated by the potential to research social connections, particularly as mashed up with census data on income, mobility and employment.  But then Facebook said he had violated its terms of use, and unable to defend a potential lawsuit, he destroyed the data.

Argh, isn’t there a better way?  The decision to make one’s profile public on profile may not equal a decision to consent to be in such a database, and that Warden’s planned “anonymization” was unlikely to be very robust, but this situation is a perfect example of why the Common Data Project was founded: to create a new norm, with strong privacy and sharing standards, that makes such data truly, safely available.

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