Thursday, December 09, 2004


Privacy please

Is a man's home still his castle?

Our traditional privacy metaphor is the privacy of your own home, in which you can shut the rest of the world out. “A man’s home is his castle.” No, Faith Hill did not make that up, by the way. I’m guessing that Lord Edward Coke, the famous English jurist during the reign of Charles I wasn’t even the first to say
The home to everyone is to him his castle and fortress, as well for his defence against injury and violence, as for his repose
-- because judges aren't particularly original when it comes to language.

The privacy as home-castle metaphor is increasingly challenged in a world of high-tech surveillance and the USA Patriot Act. For some time now, I’ve believed that a more accurate privacy metaphor for out time is the privacy of standing in a crowd. Someone who is determined to find you probably can, but you’re protected from surveillance by the difficulty of picking you out of the huge numbers of people around you. The reason that John Ashcroft doesn’t know every web site you’ve ever been to he just happens not to have singled you out from the millions of people who surf the web. (Plus, he’s not attorney general any more.)

Speaking of privacy in cyberspace, check out the writings of my cousin, who has called the internet “a privacy horror show.” Read and learn!

Here’s a privacy concern that bugs me (get it?), and did so as recently as today. The so-called “security questions” that some web sites use to let you recover your forgotten password. It’s a list of 10 or 20 questions, the kind that you would use to prove your identity to your long lost brother who doesn’t recognize you, so you say, “ask me something only you and I would know the answer to!” The questions include, “what is the name of your first pet?” “What is your father’s middle name?” “What was your high school mascot?” You get the idea.

Isn’t it kind of creepy that AOL and PayPal know the name of your dog, your third grade teacher, and the word that was uttered by your sex partner the first time he/she had an orgasm with you? (Okay, maybe they don’t ask that question... yet.) Answer enough “security questions” and Time Warner, in a joint venture with Microsoft, will be able to engineer an android who can get on the telephone and convince your own mother that it’s you on the line. (I'm not implying she knows the answer to the sex question.)

What can you do about security questions? Lie, that’s what! I made up a phony name for my first dog. The problem is that, today, when I tried to recover my forgotten password and got the “first dog” question, I’d forgotten the name I made up. Maybe it would have been easier to remember if I had used the same name as my password. Privacy horror show is right!

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