In the age of personal information versus aggregated information collected from search engines and other Internet services, one's privacy can no longer be assured. Mark Rasch looks at a recent Amazon patent application that shows how the laws need to be tightened because the lines of privacy are becoming blurred.
Privacy laws, both in the United States and abroad generally protect the collection, dissemination and use of personally identifiable information of various types and classes. This includes, for example things like identifiable banking or financial information, personal health information, credit card or payment card information, personal communications (such as the contents of e-mails) and so on.
Aggregated information, on the other hand is not generally afforded the same level of protection. Thus, information about trends, overall internet use, health care utilization, overall buying patters, and the like is generally treated as the property of the institution that creates, collects, stores or collates this information. If it is easy to convert the aggregate information into identifiable information, it may be afforded some level of protection, or may still be treated as identifiable information.
For many companies, there is a blurring of the lines between personal information (that is information about ME) and aggregate information. So, for example, Google collects information about every single thing I look for every search request, the contents of everything delivered, what I click on, where I go from there. They keep both the aggregate information (how many people buy stuff off those ads on the side) and the personal information (tell me everything you have looked at this month.)
The aggregated information is analyzed, processed, sold, and used by Google to increase advertising revenue, do load balancing all kinds of things. The same is true of ISPs and e-commerce sites. They collect and analyze massive amounts of information about even the most intimate details about you who you chat with, who you email, what you read, what you post, and potentially even the source, destination and length of your VOIP calls. Unless they have agreed not to in a Terms of Service agreement, there is virtually nothing preventing them from using this data, in an aggregated and anonymous fashion, and very little preventing them from using it otherwise.
Governments particularly the US Government have taken advantage of this fact to attempt to obtain massive amounts of information. For example, during the course of litigation involving the governments efforts to prohibit materials that are harmful to minors the US government subpoenaed from the largest search companies (Yahoo, MSN, and Google) massive amounts of such aggregate information. When they got the cooperation of various telephone companies to turn over massive amounts of telephone calling records (non-content information) they apparently argued that such aggregated information (in that case not anonymized) was not entitled to legal protection.