Be careful what you dig for

Opinion by Nick Barron

We live, so they say, in a surveillance society. Certainly here in the UK, where we have one of the highest person-to-camera ratios in the world, the standard throwaway statistic claims that London residents and commuters get snapped several hundred times a day.

We live, so they say, in a surveillance society. Certainly here in the UK, where we have one of the highest person-to-camera ratios in the world, the standard throwaway statistic claims that London residents and commuters get snapped several hundred times a day.

Indeed the UK's Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, responsible for promoting the Data Protection and Freedom of Information legislation, recently cautioned us about the dangers of “waking up to a surveillance society”. His concern is that with greater scale and integration of different surveillance systems the problem will escalate substantially.

The internet doesn't escape this, of course. The increasing sophistication of search engines and “data mining” systems makes muckraking a far less labour-intensive process. But don't worry, things are sure to get worse. On the horizon is the much-heralded “semantic web”, or “Web 2.0”. Brainchild of internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee, the idea of the semantic web is to use context to allow far more accurate searching. So no more ending up at an adult magazine site when searching for information on the Whitehouse, and us wifi security geeks need not worry about using search terms such as “pigtail supplier” at the office.

That's the plus side. On the minus side, searches such as “all highly paid Southampton academics who live alone, own a BMW and will be attending a conference in Hawaii all next week” will become an ideal target selection algorithm for the criminal community. Data mining is also a popular tool for the intelligence community. Here things get even more risky. As any computer user knows, there's much variety in the quality of data sources and, by aggregating huge collections of poorly validated data, it's very easy to come to the wrong conclusions.

However, there are beneficial applications as well. Data monitoring companies will, for a reasonable fee, continually trawl a wide range of data sources for information about you and, more importantly, your credit history. This can provide early warning of potential fraud involving your accounts.

How beneficial or repressive the semantic web will become remains to be seen, but if its predecessor is anything to go by, it should be an interesting childhood.

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