Through the looking glass

Published 2:43 pm Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What compromises must we make when it comes to our security on the one hand, and our privacy on the other? Personally, I’m far less concerned about being tracked by the National Security Agency than I am about being monitored by, say, Google.

According to the latest headlines, the NSA is gathering cellphone records from around the globe at the rate of 5 billion per day. Each such revelation — many, like this one, coming from disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden — drive privacy rights activists crazy. They worry, perhaps rightly, that it represents only the tip of what Big Brother can and will try in the future.

Meanwhile, I turn on my computer and see that something I contemplated buying weeks ago has magically shown up in an ad on the right side of my screen. I go to a website I’ve never visited before and it already knows where I live. I click on Google and see a photo of my house and car, taken without my knowledge.

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Before long Amazon will have drones landing in the driveway — oh, wait, they’re already testing that. And Microsoft will invent a bra that sends signals to the wearer’s cellphone about her mood swings. Yes, that, too, is in development.

Acxiom, one of the largest purveyors of personal information about American consumers, is testing a website that provides a peek into the world of Big Data. At you can sign up and access the data file about you and your family.

When I visited the site the first jolt came when Acxiom demanded my name, address, birthday and the last four digits of my social security number — just to enter the system.

What I saw next was quite unsettling. Information about my house, my car, my buying habits, and even the sports I enjoy. There were details of how many purchases I made with each of my credit cards, names of all magazines to which I subscribe, and even my political leaning. There were a few errors (the file identified my daughter but not my son) but most of the information was accurate.

Acxiom says the data come from government records, websites, surveys and, most abundantly, from commercial transactions. Whether any of us likes it or not, firms like Acxiom have files on everyone and make money by selling the data to whomever is willing to pay for it.

What sets Acxiom apart in this frightening world of diminished privacy is that its site offers people the chance to update and correct their data in a sort of wiki fashion. There is also an “opt out” offer by which you can remove your information from the company’s system. But don’t be fooled. Wiping your slate at Acxiom doesn’t mean your personal data isn’t still stored in hundreds of other places by companies far less willing to give you a glimpse inside.

My impression of data mining, and I hope I’m not being naive, is that the government isn’t really interested in me. My cell records are among billions of others and are little more than a meaningless blip in a gigantic statistical trove, whose value is in identifying and tracking bad actors from whom I would very much hope to be protected.

Besides, if I worried about what the government knows about me, I would have started when I got a drivers license, registered for the draft, and began paying taxes — disclosing more about myself than even my close relatives know.

But Yahoo, Google, Amazon and others in commerce want to focus on how much I owe on my American Express bill. They think knowing my shoe size has value. One wants to photograph my house and another plans to buzz my property with its drones.

Ironically, many large Internet firms — Yahoo and Microsoft being the latest — have recently announced elaborate plans to thwart government data mining of their records. They want to protect consumers, or so they say, from the possibility that Big Brother will grab the data. But isn’t that like asking a team of corporate foxes to guard the digital henhouse?

I fear that if Edward Snowden had worked for Yahoo his leaks would have been even more shocking.


Peter Funt’s latest book, “Cautiously Optimistic,” is available at and