Put your trust in technology and you’ll enjoy an interesting life

Well. Isn’t that special? It seems someone put our home voice line into a fax database somewhere. Though unsolicited faxes are illegal, we’ve been awakened virtually every morning for the last several months by a happy ringing and fax machine trying to send us a 5 a.m. fax. Finally, I had call forwarding installed on the line. Now, when a fax comes in, I forward the phone to my work fax so at least I can receive the fax and call up to have myself removed from their database.

Most are for mortgages, leading me to think it may have been a bank or mortgage company that accidentally put our voice number into a fax field.

Interestingly, we have a system where a number can be put into a database and spread far and wide, but there’s no way to get the number back out of the database. Individual merchants may let us opt out of their fax database, but there’s no mechanism for complete removal.

This is a serious problem. The current systems and laws may take different positions about whether one should opt-out or opt-in, but all of them assume the number on a fax call list is, indeed, a fax. There’s no mechanism for correcting these mistakes.

Similarly, as we trust our lives more and more to databases compiled by $3.50/hour clerks in huge data warehouses, we’re happily giving up our privacy on dozens of levels. “So what,” you cry, “I have nothing to hide anyway.” And well you may not. But has it ever occurred to you that that isn’t the issue you should be worrying about?

The deeper issue is that there are no controls on these databases. You can’t find out what databases exist. You can’t find out who controls them or who can access them. Does your mortgage company outsource customer service to India? If so, do you know the laws on privacy and theft of information in India? Probably not. But even if a company swears up and down they’re secure, if you were a $8,000/year worker with the chance to pull in a hundred grand by selling ten thousand valid credit card on the black market in a country where it’s not a crime… well … once the information’s out there, it’s hard to get it back.

Even worse, our court systems are more and more accepting records, paper trails, and databases as evidence. Phone records are used to trace who was calling whom where, with no real examination of whether those records could be easily forged or tampered with. What if someone with a grudge (or just someone gleefully malicious) forges an entry on your record that could incriminate you for a crime? You have no way of examining your records and no way of correcting them.

So in short, we’re quickly becoming the victims of our own technology. We’ve made it easy to create and compile data in vast quantities, while deploying it within a system where there is great economic incentive to exploit the data, and very little incentive to make sure it’s not misused.

What can you do? Probably nothing. We trust technology to save us and it often disappoints. So don’t bother worrying about your lost privacy, or your inability to protect yourself from corrupted databases; worry instead about handing over the integrity of our democracy to electronic voting. See this article and this one for the barest touch of the discussion on why e-voting (which can never be made secure short of having a parallel pencil and paper record) is one of the worst threats to our Democracy around today.

Ain’t technology wonderful?

Double-binds, Fax machines, and Privacy

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