Blown To Bits

The Two Faces of Internet Privacy

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Today’s news brings a nice juxtaposition.

A new law in South Korea would require those who run web sites to get and retain identifying information about the people who post on their sites. Google, which has been criticized in the past for complying with the demands of authoritarian regimes for information about its users, took the extreme step of disallowing all YouTube uploads and comments in Korea. Bravo — this will cost Google some market share, and may put pressure on the government. (Or perhaps not. YouTube is not the leading video site in Korea.) The government feels dissed and is saying as much to Google.

But today also reminds us that sometimes people using the Internet really are criminals and we are glad they are leaving electronic fingerprints behind. A series of assaults on women around Boston was solved very quickly because the alleged perpetrator was incautious enough to send an email from his home to one of his victims. Detectives obtained his IP address from the ISP and started to surveil his house. Security videos at the several crime scenes showed him tapping on his Blackberry; that was another good source of electronic forensics. (How many people could have used the same Blackberry from the three locations at the same times as the video camera showed this gentleman keeping busy?)

The two stories are not incompatible. Such records could be kept for a few weeks for police purposes and then discarded so they won’t be used for mischievous purposes later. Societies lose something by keeping data, and also lose something by deleting it. It’s just a question of making the right tradeoffs.

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