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Rushes Sequences - Lee Tien interview - USA (Video)

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Dan Biddle Dan Biddle | 14:26 UK time, Thursday, 26 November 2009

Lee Tien is Senior Staff Attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation specialising in Free Speech law. He met with the programme three team to discuss the costs of 'free' services on the web, and the potential dangers of the increasing amounts of personal information we share online and with mobile devices.

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(Please note that this transcript is the 'raw data' text we receive from a transcription company. It is a tool commonly used in production to facilitate editing and review the content. We publish it for users in that same spirit, rather than it standing as a 'perfect' representation of the content.)

Intrv     How might we give up personal information.

Lee       One way in which you'll give up personal information is obviously erm, by clicking on one thing or another that reveals the sorts of things you are interested in, but er, how would they get from that to actually figuring out, for instance, who you are. Erm well its well know in the.............. that er, things like your birth day, your gender, erm and your postal code or zip code, er, will allow people to figure out who you actually are, what your true name is. Now how might a website get that information from you, er, well lets say you want to sign up for a horoscope, then you are going to give them your birthday, and probably tell them whether or not you are a man or a women. Then maybe you want to find out what your local weather is erm, probably the easiest way to do that is to put in your postal code or zip code, and bingo they have got 3 pieces of information that are going to make it really easy for them to figure out exactly out who you are.

Intrv   And how do they actually do that, they can use that to cross reference.

Lee     Well that's right I mean there's an enormous amount of, of public record data that's available about people, erm, and certainly in the United States for instance, erm, there are lots and lots of records. Some of these are voting er, ......, erm other kinds of public records that will contain peoples true name and address and gender, so what they can do is they can figure out erm, by cross linking those records with the information they have and say oh, well you know, this is the only person in this postal code erm, who is of that age erm and of that gender, and that way they will be able to figure out who you are.

Intrv    Is personal information more valuable than cash.

Lee     Its hard to say just how valuable personal information er, on the web is. I think that most companies would rather have cash to start with but the information is coming to them almost for free. Erm, that is the er, your quick stream data just comes to the website, comes to advertisers er, without your, without your actually having to do anything other than just going er, going and clicking on things. So it's a very, very cheap and unobtrusive erm,  form of ............. I mean probably the best thing about it is that its so unobtrusive, you don't know er, you're giving it up and so its seems entirely free to you. And then the consequences of it, maybe you get certain kinds of ads, maybe you get er, telephone solicitations.   But you have no way of knowing that that's because, you know you clicked on 17 things on these 5 websites, and  so whatever it  is that you are paying for you don't really make a connection to the er information you are giving up. And I think you know, frankly people see cash, individuals see cash differently because its something that comes straight out of their pocket, erm, the information they give up, they don't see it leaving and they don't know what anyone's doing with it.

Intrv    How do we pay when we visit a free website.

Lee      Well when you visit a supposedly free website, its sort of like a sophisticated version of watching free TV, erm, you know, there is content that's being presented to you, erm, somebody's paying for it, how do they get paid back. Well in the, you know, the old TV world, at least in the United States where its, you know, based on ads, erm, what's really happening is the content is a product that's sold to advertisers, and what are advertisers buying, advertisers are buying audience, and so they pay to be able to put their advertisement in front of you. And the same thing is happening on the web, advertisers pay websites in order to put ads in front of them. The main sort of extra dimension on the web is that they're also paying for the information that they get from when you visit websites, to help them decide which ads they want to target, they want to put ads. And you know, TV is a non and interactive media, right, they don't know you are watching, erm, with the web its, the information stream goes both ways. When you pick, click on something they know you spend a certain amount of time on it. They may know you spent more time on an article about erm, er, contraceptives than about er, er, breast cancer, and all this kind of information about what it is that you're interested in gets used by advertisers to figure out how they are going to target erm, then it goes a step further right, I mean because they're building up, essentially profiles, they are building up dossiers and files about the people who visit various websites. Erm, and they will be able to glean that, you know, you are a person who likes to travel, you are a person who er, likes to cook and so on and so forth. And being able to target you as a person for those kinds of ads is again something that advertisers are worth paying, are will to pay for. Because advertising in the ordinary world is an extremely inefficient media that you are sending an ad to lots and lots of people and what percentage of those people are actually likely to or willing to you know, buy your goods or services. The amount of information that's available about people's preferences on the web enables them to be much more precise in how they advertise and therefore how they, how they sell.


Lee     The rise of, of mobile applications and location based services is, is going to be a huge privacy nightmare. Erm, because very simply you know, your place is a sensitive thing, you know, there are many, many places that seem innocuous erm, but there are many others that actually again like what you read, er, say things about you, you know, the er, if you go to an alcoholics anonymous meeting, erm, if you visit an oncologist for, who specialises in, in cancer, erm you know, if you visit a bar, you know, these are all places where you are simply being there says something about you that might be viewed er, as stigmatising or at the very least, something that you don't want others to know about, and in a way I think that, that this sort of  goes under peoples radar, they don't think about erm, the, how meaningful er, location can be, you know, then you add in that you know, its not just location er, parse but its location combined with time erm, you know, staying at a hotel you know, overnight is one thing, going to that hotel er, regularly er, during the lunch hour er, is yet another thing, and the ability to gather data about  location over time you know, creates the possibility of seeing erm, these patterns in your behaviour, er, and making some very strong inferences about what you do and what kind of a person you are. And then of course you know maybe an additional wrinkle is not just about you right, its also about the people that you are with, because if my mobile phone is being tracked and another persons mobile phone is being tracked, when you connect those dots on a, on a more grand 24-7 basis, you'll see when you know, these dots are together and er, where they're not. There's a great example from a, a several years ago, researches in Cambridge I believe were doing a study of what were calling ambient Blue Tooth activity. They want to know back in the day before Blue Tooth devices were really common, you know, well just how may Blue Tooth devices are there. And so all the folks worked in the lab, erm, had their Blue Tooth devices on in promiscuous mode. Well when they were analysing the data they were able to see that two of these devices were always sinking together erm, Friday evenings and Saturday evenings, erm, and they could see from the data that you know, that one of these was a man in the office, and the other was a women, and so they were easily able to infer that these two were a couple outside the office, even though no one knew, or would have guessed from their in office behaviour. Erm, you know the potential for location tracking to reveal not just information about yourself but about the relationships you have with other people, is, is er, unparallel and that's one reason why we are so concerned about location privacy.


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