data, data everywhere…

The old adage can ring true for online habits: “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother learning about.” Long hailed as a place to conduct oneself with a wide measure of anonymity (read how bold kids can be in chat rooms or online games when they don’t have to face people in person), we’re all starting to feel the creeping implications of data retention policies, particularly illustrated recently by AOL’s search data release.
It is a bit sobering. I have been online in some form or other since the early-mid 90’s when I was barely into high school. Granted, Google was not around, but AOL sure was. And I used it, and searched using a number of search engines available at the time. How could someone like me know that 10 years later, data retention and search engine query analysis could reveal some dirty little secrets?
Not that I have much to hide, but it is still offending to have that sort of privacy illusion (?) yanked away. Have I searched for porn online? Yeah, I’ll admit it. Have I searched for some not-so-legal things such as hacking or bomb-making just to see if I could find it? Probably. Have I done an ego-search looking for my own name? You bet. And have I done all of those, in some combination or other, from the same IP? Considering I’ve had only a handful of IPs in my online life (not counting AOL dial-up in high school), the chances are really darned good.
Scary. Just think the dirt that may be dug from such databases on politicians 20 years from now. Our president in 40 years may have an old MySpace site still lingering there, waiting to explode with traffic from mudslingers.
Step back and take that one place further. What about spyware/adware apps which remain dormant and diligently reporting user surfing habits to central servers, maybe years while users just silently huff and deal with their slowly ailing computer speeds. Or ISP traffic records that might be kept some day. Just think of all the places visited from just the one location. This now includes work-related websites, sites for stores in the area (ever look for the most local Mitsubishi dealership or the working hours for the local Papa Murphy’s Pizza?), and even the things you’d not want your grandma to know you were viewing online. Even people like me who maintain a moreorless anonymous presence in security/hacking venues would be outed.
Then again, some may argue this can be good for the morality of the Internet. I remember a long time ago a study was done where people were put into a room to socialize. Later other people were also put in the same situation, only this time the lights were turned off. You can imagine the remaining senses were used, but they were used to a degree that almost all of the people in the room wouldn’t have used them in broad daylight. Use your imagination. 🙂 Maybe with the veil of anonymity removed, people will behave better? Naa…I just think they’ll try all the more passionately for anonymous services, onion routing, VPNs, and privacy standards.