Saturday, July 05, 2008

Our New Big Brother

You know that part in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four where the television sets watch you? In a way, we've managed to arrive at that point without people realizing it. Let me explain.

With the advent of cheap, affordable broadband, an increasing portion of the population has turned to the internet for entertainment as well as information. Many people don't subscribe to a newspaper: they get their news online. We stream video, download music, search for recipes, post to our blogs, look up stuff on Wikipedia, search on keywords -- you get the picture.

On a lot of sites that provide these services, we set up accounts, so our preferences can be remembered (and sold to the people buying those ads sprinkled across the page).

Every request we make, every link we click, keyword we search, is stored somewhere--if only as an entry in a server log file. The logs keep a record of the request, along with the time/date and IP address of the requester (that's you, my friend). The server that stores the file keeps a log. The search engine keeps a log. And of course, your Internet Service Provider keeps all sorts of logs, including what your dynamically assigned IP address was at any given point at time.

Storage is dirt cheap these days, so all of this stuff tends to be retained. What happens to it?

Lots of things, but the big term encompassing all of it is data mining. It means pouring over enormous collections of warehoused data looking for patterns or trends. A single entry in a log file is like a single pixel on your monitor: it doesn't reveal much. But like our imaginary pixel, get enough of them on the monitor and a pretty accurate portrait begins to emerge. That's why websites have privacy policies: to let visitors know how information gathered (and some kind of information is always being gathered) will and won't be used.

I've grown blase about these notices. Who reads the fine print on anything these days? Just give me the video of the cat on the ceiling fan.

However well intentioned or vague these policies are, they are only as good as the company's resolve to keep them in place.

Big Media (the Media Conglomerate) has had a history of using their briefcase-toting army of darkness to intimidate and harass anyone they feel threatens their lock on global hegemony. They have now turned their sights on Google.

Viacom, who has morphed countless times like some evil corporate virus, is now suing YouTube, demanding that every single record of every single viewing of every single video since 2005 be turned over to them. This would include user names and IP addresses of the computers used to view.

They want to see every time you viewed your niece's birthday party, a George Carlin routine, a Keith Olberman commentary, some softcore porn clip, or viral video. The logs for this take up 4 terabytes of data.

4 terabytes: that's

  • 871 DVDs or
  • 6,457 CDs or
  • 3,017,188 floppies

What the fuck?

Big Media has had a long history of assuming their "intellectual property" rights trump everything else, including privacy rights. Unfortunately they've also had enough money to force their worldview in the legal system.

RIAA, MPAA, Viacom -- they all share the same DNA: that of a Chupacabra--a mangey bloodsucker who kills sheep and goats.

Google, though they've been criticised on privacy issues in the past, at least has the money and inclination to take on these bastards. They successfully fought a 2005 US Department of Justice subpoena for "the text of each search string entered onto Google's search engine over a one-week period," on privacy concerns, when a number of other search engines meekly caved into the demand.

While Google is to be commended, if you are serious about privacy issues, I suggest you go to and bookmark the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), who is in the frontlines on these types of case.

If you don't really care, you can always go here.


The Whited Sepulchre said...

Good post, sir.
The service providers apparently have a choice:
1) dump all the search data (which has a huge value) or
2) continue to put up with that kind of mess.

I predict that they'll go with #2.

Dr Ralph said...

When in doubt, follow the money.