The Fall of the Berlin Wall, Redux

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\"\"The world of information gathering and what we do with the data is in turmoil. This article is my attempt to provide context to this very necessary debate.

In November of 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reunited. One of the most painful parts of that reunion was the opening to the public of the files of Stasi, the much-feared former East German secret police. The extent of whom they were collecting information on, the volume they had, and where it came from was shocking. No, not from social media, but from neighbors, friends, family members, and telephone and mail taps. Germany, almost 30 years, later has some of the most comprehensive privacy laws based in part on the examination of those now public records. What was so damning was both the accuracy and the inaccuracy of those records, and what the impact of both was and could have been on ordinary citizens.

The ethical morality of what information we collect, how we use it and monetize it is very much in flux. The Facebook/social media issues are very real. Many of us have blithely provided the world with details of our private lives without considering its implications, not to mention who might be focusing on what we post and what we see. As with the Stasi files in 1989, here we are again in 2018 with both the accuracy and inaccuracy of intelligence gathering that is deeply disturbing. The revelations of the efforts made to manipulate public opinion on Facebook in the last election was so transparent in hindsight it’s hard to excuse it. The crime may not be on the individuals who tried to manipulate the data, but on those at Facebook who knew better and still accepted the money from Cambridge Analytica. There are serious players in the broader technology world that feel Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sanberg are guilty of serious crimes, including treason, and deserve significant jail time. American election laws, at least on that topic, are clear.


Beyond what we post ourselves, there are ways others can harvest an individual’s actions and activities. Over the past 15 years, this practice has been driven by a variety of technologies. One of the early offerings was based on pixel or face recognition software. The software package installed on surveillance cameras can recognize individuals; it was expensive and a little creepy. Yet those surveillance systems are in place at almost every gas pump, across airports, train stations, office buildings and urban streets.

Adding to the information mix is a new generation of beacons. These are devices that typically track your mobile phone. Some are based on Bluetooth signals, some key in on your phone’s setting Search for Wi-Fi. What makes the technologists salivate is that it can identify the unique ID, and thus, the person. It presents the possibility of personalization. The beacon can be calibrated to about three feet so the physical accuracy of where you are can be correlated to specific product categories and to individual displays in a store.

This is the new frontier of AI and commercial intelligence. The information is not just in the immediate, but is ongoing. Meaning that the aggregated pile of personal data someone has on you just keeps getting bigger. The data managers’ abilities to take personal data that is gathered about you from one source and combine it with other sources are getting more precise. To mitigate the predator quality of gathering information, privacy issues have been managed by asking consumers for permission to interact with them. To date, the acceptance rate for that offer tends to vary greatly; not surprisingly millennials lead the way. As your specific personal information is aggregated — how often you visited, where you went, what you bought – a personal file is developed. And as in the recent news with Facebook and other social media, your file can be sold.

A Simple Suggestion

Our rights to both our own information and the boundaries of privacy as prescribed by law are worthy of a robust public discussion. As in Germany, one way to ascertain our comfort level is to make public any records of our personal activities sold by a commercial enterprise. Allow us to look at our own files. Only in transparency in what has been collected can we ascertain what limits we, as individuals and a nation, are comfortable with.



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