Blown To Bits

Surveillance, Green and Corporate

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Sara Rimer has a nice piece in the Memorial Day New York Times about sustainability houses on college campuses‚Äìresidences where students time their showers, use the drained water to flush their toilets, and so on. Some reported behaviors, such as not bathing at all for extended periods, remind me of ’60s naturalism. Other activities are timelessly collegiate, and unlikely to last a day beyond graduation‚Äìsuch as plastering a picture of John Edwards to the shower stall ceiling as an encouragement to shorter showers.

But one sentence in this story is strikingly modern. “By¬†next fall, the house‚Äôs 24-hour energy-use monitoring system will be fully up and running. Every turn of the faucet, every switch of a light, will be recorded, room by room.”

‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not about telling people, ‚ÄòYou have to do this, you have to do that,‚Äô¬†‚Äù explains one of the students. Not today, at least. I’m betting that the monitoring technology will become more widespread and more coercive‚Äìperhaps not through direct government surveillance, but through economic incentives and social pressures. And all the standard problems with bits will arise with that information about faucet turns and light-switch-flips: who has access to the data, what will it be used for, is it deidentified, will it leak?

Today’s New York Times has a lovely account of corporate surveillance that gives a flavor of the sort of thing that can go wrong. Deutsche Telekom, a large German phone service provider, irritated by repeated leaks about layoff plans, decided to use the data at its disposal to figure out if the leaks were coming from its board of directors. So it turned a lot of call records from 2005 and 2006 over to a third party to check for conversations between directors and reporters. (You may recall that almost exactly the same thing happened at HP not long ago.) Happily, the Germans seem not to be taking this privacy violation lightly. But it’s another example of a general fact about bits: Once they are collected for one reason (in this case, billing, or perhaps traffic analysis), it’s easy to hang onto them just in case they might come in handy later. With the passage of time, the odds go up that someone with access to the data will hatch a bright new idea about how to use it.

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