August Roundup

Highlights. Or perhaps lowlights, if you will.

1. How Much For A Phone Number?

The biggest story of the month was that Facebook finally got around to cracking open the piggybank of personal data it splashed out nineteen billion on last year. In other words, connecting WhatsApp user data with Facebook user data. Despite denying this would happen when it acquired WhatsApp.

Mikko Hyppönen of security company F-Secure sums up in four minutes why Facebook acquired WhatsApp in the first place in this video (from approximately 11 minutes 50 seconds onwards). If you have time, the whole video is well worth watching. If you don’t have any time at all, the short answer is that Facebook acquired WhatsApp so it could legally get its hands on your phone number in order to better profile you for the advertisers who pay good money for that sort of information.

This month Facebook also launched an app for schoolkids called Lifestage that is at the very least questionable in its privacy settings. No, that’s a joke, to all intents and purposes it doesn’t have any privacy settings.

Notes for humans

You should care about this because Facebook holds the largest amount of information on people and their lives, loves, hopes and dreams ever amassed and is determined to continue collecting this in ever more intrusive ways, as people now share greater and greater volumes of information about themselves through their devices, knowingly and unknowingly. What Facebook does with that data seems to be entirely up to Facebook, and Facebook does rather regularly demonstrate that it will renege on previous commitments when it suits it.

2. HSE Announces It Is Building A Database Of The Personal Information OF All Irish Citizens

You probably didn’t hear about this one, because it was only mentioned in passing in a letter to the Irish Times by Richard Corbridge, the Chief Information Officer of the Health Service Executive. It’s an oddly low-key way to launch a large project like that, isn’t it? A cynic might think the HSE are determined to press ahead with the creation of these new digital identifiers for everyone in the country, whether they have asked permission from the people whose data they’ll be acquiring, combining and storing indefinitely or not. Though even if you don’t consent to this, Mr. Corbridge did mention elsewhere that he has a stick available to him which he’s prepared to use to access your data.

Corbridge said he was mindful of the struggles that the NHS England had had promoting the use of the NHS number and there were a number of “carrots and sticks” to promote the adoption of the IHI, including the option to make it mandatory.

Notes for humans

Once states have acquired information they really don’t like to relinquish it. Once a database of all citizens is created, other arms of the state find it almost impossible to resist dipping into it, with unintended consequences. These consequences are rarely positive for individuals. The failure to ask people for their consent to this collection of information and the failure to provide an opt-out mechanism is concerning.

3. Genealogy In The Opinion Pages

Sticking with peculiar goings-on in the Irish Times, space was given to Steven Smyrl of Accredited Genealogists Ireland to encourage Dublin City Library and Archive to republish its historical electoral register. For the Dublin City Library and Archive to do so it would have to ignore a legal warning from the Data Protection Commissioner that was the reason the historical register had been taken down in the first place.

Notes For Humans

It is trivially easy to abuse many of these publicly available datasets and engage in identity theft. Just because you can make data available in an unrestricted manner does not mean you should.

4. #CensusFail

They had a census in Australia at the start of August and it didn’t work. The Australian Bureau of Statistics, the body responsible for conducting the census, and more importantly, for safeguarding the personal data which was gathered and analysed ended up looking very foolish. In fact, so big was the disaster that the ABS is going to look foolish for quite some time to come, as the fallout from #censusfail is only getting going.

Notes for humans

Not all data should be monetised. Organisations with the powers to collect, control, manipulate and sell on personal data should be transparent in what they are collecting the data for now and what they plan to do with it in the future.

5. Will Your Privacy Have A Price?

If Comcast has its way in the US, the answer to this is yes. Regulators don’t agree.  This story also threw up a new nonsense term, ‘sensitivity-based consent’

Notes for humans

In the coming years there will be many attempts by service providers to generate additional revenue streams through provision of privacy for payment. An acceptable and agreed level of privacy involving consent to all data gathering and storage is a fundamental right and should not only be made available to those with the means to afford it.

Honourable mentions
  • Joining their data-grabbing friends in the Health Service Executive, the Central Statistics Office wants to use mobile phone usage data to develop tourism in Ireland and has gone so far as to make a submission to the European Commission in the hope that it will be permitted to do so. In this submission the CSO invents a brand new right, ‘the right to live in an informed society’ which it feels should trump any rights an individual has to privacy.
  • The Washington Post helpfully lists 98 things Facebook knows about you. These are, of course, only the things the Washington Post knows Facebook knows about you.
  • This month we discovered yet another a new term, ‘data-fusion’. Sounds innocuous doesn’t it? Like a passing cookery fad. As presented here it’s anything but.

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