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Will we give up our privacy for unspoiled milk?


I recently attended the eComm conference on new telephony. Two notes in presentations caught my attention, though they were mostly side notes. In one case, the presenter talked about the benefits of having RFID tags in everything.

"Your refrigerator," he said, "could read the RFID and know if your milk was expired." In the old days we just looked at the date or smelled it.

Another presenter described a project where, with consent, they tracked people wherever they went using their cell phones, and then correlated the data, to figure out what locations were hot night spots etc. In a commercialization of the project, he said the system could notice you were visiting car dealerships and send you an email offering a bargain on a car.

Now I won't try to say I haven't seen some interesting applications for location data. In fact, many years ago, I started this blog with an article about a useful location aware service of my own design.

But why is it that when people are asked to come up for applications for some of the most intrusive technologies, they often come up with such lame ones? Perhaps you may have concluded that your privacy is doomed, and these invasive technologies are coming, but if so, can we at least give up our privacy for something a bit more compelling than having to smell the milk?

I mean, RFIDs in everything (and thus the trackability of everything for good and ill) just so your fridge can be a touch smarter? So you can be marketed to better and thus, in theory, get slightly cheaper products -- at least until all sides have the technology and the competitive advantage goes away.

Have we revealed all our data about ourselves and our friends to Facebook just so we can throw sheep?

I'm not saying that throwing sheep (or the other, more practical applications of Facebook) aren't fun, but are they worth the risk? I don't say cost because you don't see the cost until long after, until there has been a personal invasion? What if Falun Gong's members had all been on Facebook when the Chinese government decided it was time to round them up? Mark my words, there will, before too long, be some group that a government decides to round up, using a social networking tool to find them. What cool apps are worth that?

There are ways to do applications on private data that are not nearly as risky. My yellow button application only transmits your location when you take an action, and that transmission can use a pseudonym. The real function can take place in the phone, knowing where it is, and knowing where interesting locations are that it needs to no more about. In this case, the network only learns something about you during explicit actions. The dangerous ones are the ones that are on all the time, that track and record your whole sea of data to do something useful. It is your whole sea of data that is the most dangerous to you, because if untrained eyes look in a big sea of data with something already in mind, they will find it, whether it's there or not. That's not as true for specialized subsets.

Comments welcome, even Anonymous ones!


If a merchant knows their customers better, they can charge them different prices: higher prices for their more loyal customers and their richer customers, lower prices to lure people in for the first time and for people who can't afford the higher price. Giving up your privacy in this case will only get you a better price if you're poor.

Perfect price discrimination transfers the entire surplus (-?) from consumers to producers, which is a good thing from the point of view of some economists, but in the real world it has some troubling centralizing effects.

In a world of perfect information, however, price discrimination is both enabled, and uncovered. So as the store rings up your milk, your PDA tells you "Others get this milk for 20% less here."

This only allows price discrimination that the customer will tolerate, ie. deliberately paying more for convenience if you value time more than money, as the wealthy do.

However, I don't doubt there will be useful applications for various privacy-invasive technologies. I am just surprised that, when people are called upon to name them, they so often list lame ones.

Your blog isn't Unicode-transparent. "(-?)" was "(-$\epsilon$)", only in Unicode instead of TeX.

Still on 5.x. If the bug still exists in 6.x drupals you might submit a bug ticket for it.

I was a bit upset with myself for not going to Ecomm. I didn't know much about the show so didn't go, but discovered that lots of really smart people went/presented so I thought I blew it. Plus it sounded easy, a show at an airport hotel - genius.

But I've been disappointed how little information was shared about the show. I found a site with slides at - but only 4 of the 15 presenters I wanted to see/hear (from the program) were posted.

Then your blog might suggest that there really wasn't that much meat there. You state it was off topic, but your two examples - RFID in the fridge and location aware stuff isn't that exciting. For a show billed up as it was, I would expect your blog to be a bit more radical after 3 days of hearing the super smart speaking about the future of telecom.

I am planning on going to voicecon Orlando at the end of the month. I don't expect to hear much genius. It is more of a tactical show rather than strategic. But I suspect there will be lots of intriguing ideas that come up. I'll keep you posted on my blog and on Twitter.

eComm was about telecom, not privacy. I spoke on privacy issues, telling the story of how AT&T got talked into wiretapping everybody by the White House, and what we have been doing to stop them, and what it means for new generation telcos. But that wasn't the theme. However, a few of the talks did touch on it which inspired this blog post.

eComm was a good conference. It was, as the organizer admitted, a bit overprogrammed. Too many talks with too little time for questions because the speakers had to fit it all in 15 minutes. A moderate number of "Here is my company" pitch-talks but also a good chunk of talks actually dealing with issues and new technologies.

I didn't attend all of it. I liked the talks that got into the meat of why things are different, in areas like new handsets, new open platforms, spectrum whitespace and the realities of other markets like Asia. I didn't so much like the "here is our platform, please pay us to build on top of it" talks.

"Mark my words, there will, before too long,
be some group that a government decides to
round up, using a social networking tool to
find them."

Maybe. However, I find it rather naive that
emphasising privacy can somehow stop this.
Either the government is justified in
"rounding up" folks or not. (I don't see a
problem "rounding up" serial killers, for
example. In many countries, people who have
robbed and beaten old people in the subway,
for example, have been convicted based on
the evidence of surveillance cameras.) If it
is justified, more power to them. If it is
NOT justified, then by definition it is doing
something wrong. Will such a morally wrong
government stop its wrongdoing just because
it can't get the data? In such cases, guilt
is secondary---see Guantanamo. What counts
is whether the requisite number of people have
been "rounded up", not whether they are really

My point is, just like at Guantanamo, if a government
is morally wrong, it won't have any qualms about
breaking the law, "rounding up" completely innocent
people even if they have no connection to whatever
it is the government is battling.

The way to avoid this is transparency. By making information
by default public, and only in special cases private,
rather than vice-versa, society is helped and the government
is really under the control of the people.

Take Norway, for example. You can see, on the internet
and with no need for any sort of authorisation, what
everyone earns, how much tax they paid, how much wealth
they own etc. For a long time now Norway has topped the
lists---be it PISA (learning), Transparency International
(anti-corruption), Reporters Without Borders (freedom of
the press), UNESCO (quality of life for children), other
UN lists (general quality of life), Amnesty International
(human rights) etc etc. Coincidence? I don't thinks so.
(One's financial situation is not the only publicly
available information.)

The fact is that privacy is often used to conceal criminal
activity. Finally several countries are threatening
so-called "tax havens" with serious consequences if they
don't clean up their act. Their excuses are becoming
more and more lame (such as Switzerland saying "we prosecute
tax fraud; it's just that tax evasion is not a crime here"
is like saying "we prosecute premeditated murder, but killing
for fun is OK").

The whole privacy discussion reminds me of protests against
machine-readable passports a few years ago. One argument was
"If country X becomes a dictatorship, we can smuggle people out
with faked passports.". Like, yeah, right. Soldier at the border:
"This passport isn't machine-readable, so I can't tell if it is
faked or not. Thus, even though I suspect that what you are doing
is illegal, I have to let you pass." No. Such soldiers will shoot
you on the spot, as anyone with experience with a real dictatorship
would tell you if he weren't dead as a result of the shooting.
Again, the solution is to avoid a bad government, not try to keep
the government from acting due to exaggerated privacy. Not only does
this keep the government from acting in a good sense, but it is not
even effective if the government tries to act badly.

I have lived for at least a couple of years (sometimes much longer)
in 4 countries, spent a significant amount of time in a handful more,
and travelled to about 40 more. My experience: the less privacy
there is, the safer I feel.

You've undoubtably heard about the "study" where researchers found
that a majority of people on the street (Britain?) were willing to
give up their passwords for a bar of chocolate. I don't think the
passwords were verified for authenticity.

Most people don't seem to know, or don't care -- or both -- about the
full impact of intrusive technologies to their privacy. Hence the
success of supermarket tracking cards, etc. I think that even in
a largely technologically-aware area such as "Greater Silicon Valley,"
people are simply too busy trying to earn a living, get little Johnny
to softball practice and little Suzy to gymnastics, etc., to bother
with informing themselves on what are seen as abstract issues that have
little to no direct effect on their lives. And if they do hear about
these issues, they often don't understand them. Critical thinking,
sadly, seems on the decline.

Thus they jump on things like supermarket "loyalty" cards, which on the
surface seem like a good deal. Sites like are lost in
the noise of the myriad of entertainment options. Yet I can verify
from personal experience that much of what they say is true. When one
supermarket chain was bought out by another a few years back, they crowed
about dropping the card program in favor of low prices, all the time, for
everybody. And it was true... for a while. But the bright lights in
sales and marketing couldn't restrain themselves, and eventually they
brought the cards back. I was on a tight budget then, and watched every
penny. And yes, the prices on featured items (card required) was quite
low. But prices on everything else went up significantly. I haven't
shopped there since, even though my financial situation has improved.

Oh, and what about the arson case involving someone who was discovered,
through a supermarket card program, to have bought lighter fluid? Or
the person whose liquor purchases, tracked by the store, were brought to
light when that person sued the store after slipping and falling? And
how about the DEA asking supermarkets for customers who have purchased
large amounts of plastic baggies, on the theory they might be drug dealers?
Note to the uninformed: these have all already happened!

And as further evidence of just how lame the "spoiled milk" application is...
Of course when I buy milk it is before the expiration date. But that date
often passes while I'm using the milk, and most of the time it lasts for
days or even weeks without a problem. In one extreme case, I opened a sealed
container of sour cream A FULL YEAR after the expiration date -- it was fine,
and I used the entire contents over the course of several weeks uneventfully.

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