Structured or unstructured

door Arne Keuning op

Structured or unstructured

Regarding privacy a lot of fuss is often made about the information that the government collects about this. And I must say the government collects a lot.


An interesting case recently was with two criminals in the Netherlands. After stealing 21 cars they have been apprehended. The police stores every license plate in a database of every care that drives on the highway at Zwolle. It turned out that each time a stolen car drove by the same car was just behind it. This is the first time that the judge has to decide if this large database of car movements in the Netherlands can be legally used to search for clues.

As for the storage of personal information we can distinguish three domains who has access to the information: the government, (networks of) companies and the Internet.

As for the Government I am not that worried. I do believe that we have a strong democracy that will correct itself when information is misused too often. Of course that government may change. However, when it changes the government would start to implement a lot more means to spy on us anyway. As long as the use of the information is transparent I won’t lose much sleep over it.

As for companies it starts to become more complex. Banks, Supermarkets, web-stores, Google and others collect huge amounts of data. When companies combine this information it makes you feel digitally naked. Sometimes this is information that is collected without the person knowing that it is collected.

The website had collected the IP addresses of people that signed a petition with false names after a post at another website, that asked people to invalidate the petition. These IP addresses where than supplied to other websites in order to block the people behind it. The CBP has taken action in this case.

There are rules to what kind of information can be combined but it is often a shady area. In the example above it became transparent but especially in commercial environments it will often be hidden. The risks are significant. Much of this information in the hands of insurance companies will lead to a risk selection that is, from a societal point of view, not what we want. The acquisition of hospitals by insurance companies is a dangerous move in this respect.

In this case we are talking about information collected by (fairly large) companies. And companies can be found and are subject to regulations. This means that with a good legal framework it is a subject that can be controlled to a large extent.

As for Internet things are getting messy. The Internet is more and more used by people as the context to interpret information. If someone applies for a job he or she is googled. If a social worker is looking into a case it is not only the “kinddossier” that they look at but also hyves is checked. Internet has become the context in which official information is interpreted. And context information may be more important than the official information…

Problem which information on the Internet is that it is much harder to control in presence and in use. You can not stop a company from using the information on a potential pregrancy of a candidate that they have found. And you often can not have information removed that you do not like. And sometimes people leave information on websites that is plain false in order to harm someone.

People should become much more aware how much information can be found on them. Tinkebell recently published a book with all the hate-mail she got combined with personal information of the people that had send this e-mail. The people sending the hate-mail had the idea that they could send their messages in anonymity. Of 30% of the hate-mail she has received she could find extensive personal information on the net and has published this personal information together with hate-mail. I think a brilliant action.

We can not stop the amount of personal information on the Net. It is not just the information you publish yourself but also information others publish about you. What we need is some sort of digital mirror that shows us how the world sees us through the eyes of the Internet. Just like the mirror that hangs in you hallway and where you check your physical representation before going into the world. And like how we use clothes to create an image to the outside world we will pro-actively plant information on the net to create the image we want.

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