PRISM and metadata: finding you

But a physician took down an entire database!

“The qualitative moment … makes its appearance in the sphere of quantity,”

Hegel wrote in his work, The Science of Logic almost 150 years ago.

And around two weeks ago we learned that PRISM is not recording anything of quality but merely metadata, the easily quantifiable bits of information: phone numbers, the length of calls,their frequency, in addition to the information that is already publicly available on the internet. It’s essentially what Google and Facebook already do, plus the phone tapping, which according to TV series and movies is what the FBI and CIA already do (preferably with a court warrant).

However, two years ago NPR aired a story about a medical doctor with a history of malpractice accusations, who caused the National Practitioner Data Bank to go offline. Before that happened, journalists would be able to match alphanumeric codes with the physicians’ names

“by overlaying other records obtained through old-fashioned digging …

They were filling in the blanks by talking to staff members at hospitals, by looking at court records, by calling different states to get their discipline files. And so, they had so much information that they were able to take some of the records in the Data Bank and identify who the physicians were.”

In essence, the journalists were linking bits of quantifiable data to get to the real person behind them. Yet the threat of being charged with inspiring potentially false accusations led the government to significantly limit access to the database by taking it off the web.

The case of the physician shows how easy it already is to identify a person based on dispersed quantified data.

His action caused outrage because it was intended to hide accusations of malpractice made against him—information patients would be certainly find noteworthy. But in reality, it could be anything and anyone. The bar you check yourself in on Foursquare. The mood you post on Facebook. The number of text messages you sent to your ex.

The moral of the story is that the medical doctor had a good lawyer. In the time of PRISM and other data-mining programs with a global outreach perhaps we should get one, too. In the Hague.

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