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The loneliness of personal data

February 16, 2009
Still from I Love Alaska

Still from I Love Alaska

There is something at once banal and heartbreaking about what is revealed through the examination of personal data. The episodic film, I Love Alaska, captures this beautifully. The film by Lernert Engelberts and Sander Plug is based on AOL’s accidental exposure of the search data of hundreds of thousands of its users, and focuses on just one, 711391. The film consists of an actress reading out the (unusually discursive and plain language) search terms of User 711391 like an incantation, with background sound from Alaskan locations and static camera shots that serve to emphasize her boredom, isolation and loneliness.

I was watching episode 5 of the film when two stories popped into my inbox that just happened to be related. The first was from the New York Times business section and dealt with the other side of the recent US sporting scandal over revelations that baseball player Alex Rodriguez has taken steroids. Like User 711391, Rodriguez had given up his data (in this case, a sample) in the belief that the data would be anonymous and aggregated. But it wasn’t.

So, then we come to how the state deals with this. The Toronto Globe and Mail comments on the way the Canadian federal government is, like so many others, proposing to introduce new legislation to monitor and control Internet use. The comment argues that there is no general need to store personal Internet use data (or Canada will end up like the UK…), and that Internet surveillance should be governed by judicial oversight. Quite so. But, as the NYT article points out, it isn’t just the expanding appetite of the state for data (frequently coupled in the UK with incompetence in data handling) that we should fear but the growth in numbers of, and lack of any oversight or control over, private-sector dataveillance operations.

Some people will argue that any talk of privacy here is irrelevant: User 711391 was cheating on her husband; Rodrguez was taking steroids; there are paedophiles and terrorists conspiring on the Internet. With surveillance the guilty are revealed. Surely, as Damon Knight’s classic short story, ‘I See You’, claimed, with everything exposed we are truly free from ‘sin’? But no. In its revelations, surveillance like this harms us all: it makes our lives banal and reveals only the sadness and the pain. For User 711391, her access to the Internet served at different times as her main source of entertainment, desire, friendship, and even conscience. The AOL debacle revealed all of this and demeaned her and many others in the process. Most of us deserve the comfort of our very ordinary secrets and the ability for things to be forgotten. This is the true value of privacy.

(Thanks to Chiara Fonio for letting me know about I Love Alaska)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Chiara permalink
    February 16, 2009 3:45 pm

    You’re welcome David!🙂

  2. Chiara permalink
    February 26, 2009 10:20 am

    Ciao David,
    check this out:
    http://www.concurringopinions.com/archives/2009/02/arod_and_confid.html#more

    it might be of interest to you.

  3. David permalink
    February 26, 2009 11:41 am

    Cheers, I have (tried to) comment there. Dan Solove is a very good writer on the legal aspects of privacy and surveillance.

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