Privacy in Cyberspace: Is It Possible?

Commentator Paul Ford is a computer programmer who has spent a lot of time looking at the ways to keep personal information private on the Internet and in large databases. He says that privacy is technically possible — but not very likely.

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For many years, commentator Paul Ford has made his living as a computer programmer. He says the Justice Department asking for Google's records is just one part of a growing trend.

PAUL FORD: There's a lot about privacy in the news lately. You've got the government building all manner of databases to track people for all manner of things. You've got the Bush Administration authorizing the NSA to spy on people inside of America. Your cell phone records are for sale. And don't forget the regular credit card theft or the fact that your color printer may very well be putting secret codes on every page it prints to make it easier to find you if you do anything bad.

Many concerned citizens get upset about these sorts of violations. They're bothered that their identities are not their own, that their personal lives can be invaded for a few bucks without a warrant. They're out there fighting in court, raising awareness, bringing the fight to the people and I admire them, but they're tilting at windmills. It's over, there will be no more real privacy ever.

You know those classic words spoken by countless vice principals, I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record, well our records, all of them are permanent now. Sure, there'll be the feeble do not call list or some half-hearted scaling back of large-scale domestic spying operations, but we all know what happens to privacy measures that interfere with either the war on evildoers or the free flow of business.

Besides, it's just so easy and efficient to keep track of everyone using big databases. Databases want to be merged. They cry out to be mined and turned into money or knowledge. Building a database that protects privacy, really protects it? That takes time, and thought, and money.

There's a good technical book that shows you exactly how to keep private information secure, even if you have millions of customers. It's called TRANSLUCENT DATABASES by Peter Wayner. Reading that book, I thought to myself, almost no one is going to go to the trouble to do this stuff. In fact, I bet it will go the other way.

I've researched this problem for a long time, and looked at the software they use to analyze the databases, and the only advice I have is, buck up. Your purchases, your phone calls, the names of people to whom you send emails, the websites you visit, search terms, those all belong to somebody else, anybody really who wants them. Big companies and the occasional government agency, they own a chunk of your life now, and they're not about to let that chunk go, and there's nothing for you to do about it. Sit straight at your desk because everything is going on your permanent record.

MELISSA BLOCK: Paul Ford is a programmer for the website of "Harper's Magazine."

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