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AOL publishes database of users' intentions

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Leave No Trace

Law enforcement agencies, particularly in the US, tend to receive more strict oversight than corporations. The immediate harm for ordinary citizens comes not from paranoid SF fantasies, but from the "database of inferences" being exploited for commercial gain.

More lives are affected every day by the actions of banks, insurance companies and HMOs, than they are by data-mining cops. If your LiveJournal blog contains more frowns than smileys, you may well need to be prescribed a course of an anti-depressant. If your lifestyle involves risky situations in night spots, you may well need to pay a higher insurance premium. Yet such invasive data mining is the inexorable conclusion of overestimating the value of this harvest of so-called "machine wisdom".

People would be rightly be outraged if Big Pharma, banks and the insurance business created "inference profiles" based on one's data trail. But, wait! That's what they already do. Human decision-making is playing an increasingly smaller role in whether credit applications are approved, or what kind of health care is permissible. When corporations do this, they are making implicit moral choices - that one person is more or less than deserving than another - but obscuring the decision behind a smokescreen of technology babble.

The addition of an internet clickstream to the mass of data they already possess about you is but a small, incremental step.

So why not tackle this problem at source?

The only solution to the problem of data abuse - and it's only an inadequate, and very partial answer - is to ensure the data isn't there to abuse in the first place. If search engines were required to delete their users' queries as soon as they were made, and to leave no trace, this would greatly diminish the dangers of false inference by law enforcement officials, health companies, banks, HMOs, and anyone else seduced by the lure of a faulty algorithm.

Data that doesn't exist is also less vulnerable to being stolen.

This would disappoint law enforcement officials, many corporations, and most of all the search engines themselves - Google CEO Eric Schmidt has boasted of building a "Google that knows more about you."

If that takes a regulatory agency, to ensure search engines "Leave No Trace", so be it. And meanwhile, drooling over such bad metaphors as "Database of Intentions", or "Collective Intelligence", is going to make data abuse more, and not less likely. ®

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