Chapter 4. Privacy and Surveillance

Our Data, Ourselves

Originally published in Wired, 15 May 2008

In the information age, we all have a data shadow. We leave data everywhere we go. It's not just our bank accounts and stock portfolios, or our itemized bills, listing every credit card purchase and telephone call we make. It's automatic road toll collection systems, supermarket affinity cards, ATMs, and so on.

It's also our lives. Our love letters and friendly chat. Our personal e-mails and SMS messages. Our business plans, strategies, and offhand conversations. Our political leanings and positions. And this is just the data we interact with. We all have shadow selves living in the data banks of hundreds of corporations and information brokers—information about us that is both surprisingly personal and uncannily complete—except for the errors that you can neither see nor correct.

What happens to our data happens to ourselves.

This shadow self doesn't just sit there: It's constantly touched. It's examined and judged. When we apply for a bank loan, it's our data that determines whether or not we get it. When we try to board an airplane, it's our data that determines how thoroughly we get searched—or whether we get to board at all. If the government wants to investigate us, they're more likely to go through our data than they are to search our homes; for a lot of that data, they don't even need a warrant.

Who controls our data controls our lives.

It's true. Whoever controls our data can decide ...

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