D is for Database: We Know Where You Live (What You Had For Dinner, Which Websites You Visit Most … )

You might be forgiven, after all the hullabaloo surrounding the cancelling of ID Cards shortly after the Coalition took power last May, for thinking that we’d entered an age of a more enlightened approach to data collection. Surveying the recent rash of revelations about the info various companies (we’re looking at you, Microsoft, Google, Facebook) already have about us, however, you’d be hard-pressed to take such a forgiving attitude. Microsoft acknowledged earlier this week that the Patriot Act,

possibly, in our view, the most misleadingly-named legislation in existence, gives the US government the potential to access EU-based data. At the launch of Office 365, Gordon Frazer, managing director of Microsoft UK, was asked:

Can Microsoft guarantee that EU-stored data, held in EU based datacenters, will not leave the European Economic Area under any circumstances — even under a request by the Patriot Act?

His response? “Microsoft cannot provide those guarantees. Neither can any other company.” In other words, the US Government can force us to provide them with data, even when it’s data held outside the country.

Also this week (guess it’s database state week ’round these parts), a British company claims to be able to track “almost 100 per cent” of the UK population — for advertising purposes. Naturally, WPP are playing coy about the idea that their new business venture might be violating ethical boundaries, saying that “who the person is is not important to us”.

That’s not really the point, though. The point is whether the information they collect could be used to identify individuals. John Buckman, chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), says that: “knowing the pattern of websites you go to makes it very easy to identify you.” So the risk that some unlicensed organisation — or state government — could use the information collected by WPP to track your internet usage and essentially spy on you, clearly exists. The words ‘internet’ and ‘privacy’ are fast becoming antonyms.

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