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Chapter: Security in Computing : Privacy in Computing

Computer-Related Privacy Problems

You may notice that many of the kinds of sensitive data and many of the points about privacy have nothing to do with computers.

Computer-Related Privacy Problems


You may notice that many of the kinds of sensitive data and many of the points about privacy have nothing to do with computers. You are exactly right: These sensitivities and issues predate computers. Computers and networks have only affected the feasibility of some unwanted disclosures. Public records offices have long been open for people to study the data held there, but the storage capacity and speed of computers have given us the ability to amass, search, and correlate. Search engines have given us the ability to find one data item out of billions, the equivalent of finding one sheet of paper out of a warehouse full of boxes of papers. Furthermore, the openness of networks and the portability of technology (such as laptops, PDAs, cell phones, and memory devices) have greatly increased the risk of disclosures affecting privacy.


Rezgui et al. [REZ03] list eight dimensions of privacy (specifically as it relates to the web, although the definitions carry over naturally to other types of computing).


Information collection: Data are collected only with knowledge and explicit consent.


Information usage: Data are used only for certain specified purposes.


Information retention: Data are retained for only a set period of time.


Information disclosure: Data are disclosed to only an authorized set of people.


Information security: Appropriate mechanisms are used to ensure the protection of the data.


Access control: All modes of access to all forms of collected data are controlled.


Monitoring: Logs are maintained showing all accesses to data.


Policy changes: Less restrictive policies are never applied after-the-fact to already obtained data. Here are the privacy issues that have come about through use of computers.


Data Collection

As we have previously said, advances in computer storage make it possible to hold and manipulate huge numbers of records. Disks on ordinary consumer PCs are measured in gigabytes (109 bytes), and commercial storage capacities often measure in terabytes (1012 bytes).


In 2006, EMC Corporation announced a storage product whose capacity exceeds one petabyte (1015 bytes). (For perspective on these numbers, scientists estimate the capacity of the human brain to be between one terabyte and one petabyte.) Indiana University plans to acquire a supercomputer with one petabyte of storage, and the San Diego Supercomputer Center has online storage of one petabyte and offline archives of seven petabytes. Estimates of Google's stored data are also in the petabyte range. We have both devices to store massive amounts of data and the data to fill those devices. Whereas physical space limited storing (and locating) massive amounts of printed data, electronic data take relatively little space.


We never throw away data; we just move it to slower secondary media or buy more storage.


No Informed Consent


Where do all these bytes come from? Although some are from public and commercial sources (newspapers, web pages, digital audio, and video recordings) and others are from intentional data transfers (tax returns, a statement to the police after an accident, readers' survey forms, school papers), still others are collected without announcement. Telephone companies record the date, time, duration, source, and destination of each telephone call. ISPs track sites visited. Some sites keep the IP address of each visitor to the site (although an IP address is usually not unique to a specific individual). The user is not necessarily aware of this third category of data collection and thus cannot be said to have given informed consent.


Loss of Control


We realize that others may keep data we give them. When you order merchandise online, you know you have just released your name, probably some address and payment data, and the items you purchased. Or when you use a customer appreciation card at a store, you know the store can associate your identity with the things you buy. Having acquired your data, a merchant can redistribute it to anyone. The fact that you booked one brand of hotel room through a travel agent could be sold to other hotels. If you frequently telephone someone in one city and have taken several plane trips to that city, local stores, restaurants, or tourist attractions in that city might want your name. You have little control over dissemination (or redissemination) of your data.


We do not always appreciate the ramifications of lost control. Suppose in a moment of anger you dash off a strong note to someone. Although 100 years ago you would have written the note on paper and 50 years ago you would have voiced the comment by telephone, now you post the message to a blog. Next suppose you have a change of heart and you want to retract your angry note. Let us consider how you would deal with these three forms of the communication. For the written note, you write a letter of apology, your recipient tears up your first note, and no trace remains. In the second case you telephone to apologize and all that remains is a memory. As for the blog, you delete your posting. However, several other people might have seen your original posting and copied it to blogs or other web sites that you do not control. Search engines might have found the original or copies. And other people might have picked up your words and circulated them in e-mail. Thus, with letters and phone calls, we can usually obliterate something we want to retract. But once something is out of your control on the web, it may never be deleted.


This example concerned something you wrote. A similar situation concerns something written about you. Someone else has posted something on the web that is personal about you and you want it removed. Even if the poster agrees, you may not be able to remove all its traces.


Finally, some people are finding they reveal more than they should on sites like myspace.com. Prospective employees are being turned down for jobs because of things they have written. The web is a great historical archive, but because of archives, caches, and mirror sites, things posted on the web may never go away.


A second issue of loss of control concerns data exposure. Suppose a company holds data about you and that company's records are exposed in a computer attack. The company may not be responsible for preventing harm to you, compensating you if you are harmed, or even informing you of the event.


Ownership of the Data


In the cases just described, customer details are being marketed. Information about you is being sold and you have no control; nor do you get to share in the profit.


Even before computers customer data were valuable. Mailing lists and customer lists were company assets that were safeguarded against access by the competition. Sometimes companies rented their mailing lists when there was not a conflict with a competitor. But in those cases, the subject of the data, the name on the list, did not own the right to be on the list or not. With computers the volume and sources of data have increased significantly, but the subject still has no rights.


These issuesloss of control, no informed consent, no ownership of datahave significant privacy implications. The way we address these kinds of issues is with policies, written statements of practice that inform all affected parties of their rights. In the next section we investigate privacy policies for computing.

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