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May 29, 2005

Internet Privacy: Knowing vs Doing

Despite all the guns out there, chances are, you're not going to get shot. Despite all the credit cards you have, chances are your identity is not going to get stolen.

I've been a little lax on following up on the many interests I've cultivated in my life, among them security and paranoia. So I've only vaguely heard tell of Bank of America's loss of private information to crackers and identity fraudsters. But I'm not really worried.

Back in the days, before the internet bubble, our division got into a lot of PR hot water over the matter of privacy. I had a nicely complex argument that shot down most arguments against our cookies and weblog inspections that went a little something like this. You need to take into consideration the value of your information. Why would a thief buy $500 tools to steal a $50 item? And while it may be true that part of the value of these recent identity theft break-ins is the size of the theft, sooner or later there has to be a fence value for each one. What is, indeed, the value of you mother's maiden name?

I've been thinking about what the value of my writing on the internet for the past 12 years has been. I've always assumed that some poor graduate student would have to troll through it after I'm gone to make some anthropological sense of the contribution of the post-civil rights black middle class. But more recently, especially since my mother says I confess too much, I've been thinking about its value to my own children. After all, they're probably the only ones who really care enough to read more than a little bit. I don't tell people to read my blog, and I don't often mention that I do blog, but I think that most of my friends know about it - and don't read it. I know that my mother is the only family member that reads Cobb on the regular. Such facts, combined with the fact that my IQ is right about at the same level as my FICO score, I don't particularly worry about my identity being stolen.

I have several issues with 'action at a distance', and so while I am often the first to indulge in the latest technological goody, I am far from being dependent or overly respectful of all this stuff. I know how fragile it is and how wrong it can be.

Since I'm not cheating on my wife or stealing from my employer or blackmailing anyone, I can see no particular enemies looking to do me in. When you think of the guns and violence, we know that people are generally killed by people they know for reasons that don't take long to figure out. It's likely to be your own son who is out joyriding in the family sedan. Because it's a family sedan, it's not so attractive to professional thieves. My identity is no Mercedes Benz, at least my identity as tied to financial data about me in hackable computers somewhere. But if there is dirt doable to me, it would most likely be by an insider. Did I spend 200 bucks on a dinner in Salt Lake City? My wife would kill me if she found out. That's my kind of worry. (Actually it was only 74 bucks).

So considering the massive amount of information about me through my blog, and who knows what the google archive has via google groups, there's a lot to know, but little to do. What's the motivation? How is the information valued? Moe importantly, how does it get fungible? Which is to say, where is the fence? What is the eqivalent of a pawn shop for the last four digits of your social security number? What do you care if your eyeglasses perscription falls into the wrong hands?

Still, I'd be a bit more comfortable if we had the option to generate our own passwords and identifyers. PGP with a picture and a signature would be plenty. Some joint like the UPS Store (where my favorite Notary Public can be found) or Kinkos could provide this service to customers - live authentication. Banks would be uniquely qualified to do similar things. In fact, I could see a privatized national ID system coming to fruition sooner than a Federal one, and I'd be all for it. Until then, all my business is in the street, and who cares?

Posted by mbowen at May 29, 2005 10:11 AM

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My last month in college, I had a carbon copy of a credit card charge used to charge things to my credit card. It took some work to get the charges removed.

It's easy to get information about me, specifically, with just general information. (I did it for fun and I was not happy with the result).

I've checked my credit report on a regular basis for a few years now (5?). People need to be aware.

Posted by: DarkStar at May 29, 2005 10:48 AM

Beware the disgruntled resturant employees who handle credit card reciepts. I worry more about them than IT theifs.

Posted by: Matt at May 30, 2005 04:57 PM

I think it is not for actions past or present that a large internet footprint might unease, but rather those potentially in one's future.

(Dang that sounded kinda smart. Even if it actually isn't, please humor me for the effort.)

P.S. I don't believe we're direct family relations, and yet I read and enjoy very much. Of course we share a city, you and I.

Posted by: Latigo Flint at May 31, 2005 02:19 AM