Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Computing scholars and other people's privacy

The New York Times reports on the release of AOL's "three months 'worth of users' query logs to a publicly accessible Web site late last month" and the reactions of some scholars of computer science and linguistics. It seems from the article that most of them think that privacy concerns are secondary to their needs of carrying out research. What it even more worrying (actually appalling came to my mind) is that these are not people ignorant about the privacy they might be breaching; they acknowledge that they might feel uncomfortable, but that they might use the data anyway. Then, taking into account that we are talking about people who are in top-level universities and real specialists in data retrieval, the claim that the person who released the data "didn't anticipate that this kind of data could be used to track down individuals" is simply ludicrous. Obvioulsy AOL didn't believe him because he was fired (but we only have to wait to see if any of these concerned scholars offer him some post or fellowship, which of course will be unrelated to his release of the data for which they have been craving for ten years).
Since one of the scholars named in the article use his own life-experience example to justify the use of the data, I will use mine to explain why it must no be used (and should have never been released). Some years ago I was in Japan and the university in which I was doing my postgraduate studies was conducting a survey that implied giving opinions about several academic topics, administrators and faculty. The survey was designed to be very anonymous, but only if you were Japanese, single, studied one of the classic degrees and were between 18 and 25 years old. No matter how many fields I tried to left blank, any combination of them would identify me. It can be argued that the problem is that I am too different from the "normal" Japanese university student, but as far as I remember, the right to be or think different is part of what makes Western democracies be what they are.
The problems with online raw data are even worse, because context is rapidly lost or forgotten. Now lets imagine that you are a scholar who is carrying out research on online pornography, and that you use your AOL account to do some of your research at home. Try to explain that in ten years time when you are trying to become the dean of your school and somebody discover your night's habits. Or you are a 18 years old kid that does like to watch pornography every night and in fifteen years time plans to become member of the city council...
I think that those elite universities in the USA should start reviewing the curriculum and put more emphasis on ethics while handing out degrees in sciences that might have and impact on other peoples lives...

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