Friday, October 19, 2007

10 Years Late

I was having breakfast a few mornings ago with a colleague. We were discussing the current state of privacy laws and what I perceived to be the major threats to privacy. I was bemoaning the fact that our current privacy regimes are inadequate to deal with these new threats- that of government "function creep" (with the many unfortunate but legal uses being made of our personal information by government agencies in the name of national security and law enforcement), and identity theft. With respect to the former, he commented that while the checks and balances of our modern democratic systems may appear to have broken down, they are actually still in play. We'll see the pendulum swing back in the next few years.

It dawned on me that our current privacy laws were made for our world as it existed 10 years ago when we were at the height of the boom. Way back then, in 1997, everyone was worried about the potential abuses by information entrepreneurs who wanted to capture our eyeballs and data mine our personal information. The laws we built succeeded in tempering the ambitious aspirations of the entrepreneurs, but didn't anticipate the threat to privacy in the post 9/11 world.

Maybe thats the pattern. 10 years from now we will have come to a consensus on how to protect personal information from over-zealous bureaucrats and law enforcement officials. But who knows what new threats to privacy will emerge in 2017. We can predict, for example, that our genetic code will be a prominent feature of our electronic health records. Who will be trying to exploit that information for power or profit? We can also predict that our privacy laws won't be able to fully protect us from these new perils.

Unfortunately, we don't have a crystal ball.

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