As we build Merlin we struggle with the challenge of getting people to take privacy seriously, not only in principle but also in a personal sense.
We could talk about the NSA, consumer tracking, scanner data or metadata analysis. All of that is deeply troubling, but it's also abstract and very distant. For example, we often hear statements like, "Who cares if the NSA is recording my voice calls, or reading my email? It's not relevant to my life".
The problem is, that's not true. It is very relevant to everyone's lives, in a very immediate way. The challenge is to help people understand how, and why. What's missing is a way to visualize it, a way to make the loss of personal privacy palpable and immediate. We need something simple and directly personal. So here it is, in a single question:
Give it a try. You might be surprised by what you discover. And while you're at it also try Googling your email address without your name. It turns out that many organizations — both private and governmental — will protect your name but openly publish your email address, often linked to shockingly deep content. When you're done with that, Google the names of your children, or your spouse.
Are you hesitating? Does that feel like something you don't really want to do? Are you apprehensive about what the search might return? Are you worried that simply typing their names as search terms would itself be a loss of privacy?
If so, you're not wrong. Simply by following the trail of hyperlinks you can discover a treasure trove of information about you and your family.
Take for example that club you casually joined a few years ago… they anonymize your name, but then blow it all by posting your comments, race scores, or whatever, with your email address.
Just by following meeting schedules and making reasonable assumptions about your level of participation, even an amateur can learn what you are interested in, when and where you are likely to be, and what your attitudes are on anything you commented on. If you uploaded a picture taken with a smart phone, all they have to do is download it and view the GPS information to understand precisely where you were.
Now extend this through everything you learn about yourself by following all the links you find, and all the links they in turn lead to. Even a beginner can build quite a picture of you, your family and your interests. By feeding that data into metadata analysis programs, professionals can build a picture not only of you and your family, but also of who you are likely associating with.
And that's just from what's publicly available via search engines. Add to it what's in deeper databases such as SecureFlight, your health-care provider's or local civil records, all of which is wide open to vastly more people than you might think, and a frighteningly detailed picture can be painted of the books you read, the people you talk to, the topics you discuss, your politics, your romantic partners, and much more.
It's one thing to warn people about this abstractly with words alone, it's a whole new dimension when you experience it personally...