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How to build a stainless steel house

Thu, 10/31/1996 - 7:00pm
Wendell Bailey
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The best known of these early efforts was the QUBE system by Warner Cable. This service was used in several communities, and was the subject of literally thousands of articles about future two-way offerings.

One of the issues that began to surface in late 1981 was directly related to the QUBE service. Certain segments of the communities where QUBE was offered were concerned about the use to which cable operators would put subscriber information that was collected. It seems that people were concerned that some of the features of the interactive service could reveal who watched what, and when. It is true that the system could determine the details of what channel was turned on and which movie service was authorized. The issue of privacy and concern about "Big Brother" had arrived in cable land.

The NCTA and its board of directors decided to do something about this concern, and the result was a set of guidelines that spoke to what information could be collected, and under what circumstances it could be used. Specifically, these guidelines gave the subscriber the right to demand that no information collected by the operator could be used for any purpose except the actual operation of the cable system without the written permission of the subscriber.

Giving our privacy away

Today, one would have to say that, in terms of danger to our privacy, the cable issue in the world of QUBE was light years away. Today, privacy is uppermost in our minds. The Internet and its capabilities have made it possible to find out just about anything, about just about anyone, in only a minute. There are dozens of databases, web sites and computer programs that can identify you through a wide variety of details. Anyone who knows your telephone number has an absolute lock on your address. Anyone who knows your address has an excellent chance of finding out where you work, and anyone who knows your name and address is just an eyelash away from finding out your social security number. Sometimes you give this information freely to someone who asks for it in connection with a service or a purchase. It may seem incredible, but virtually any detail that a commercial merchant gets from you can end up on a list that is available through the previously-mentioned venues.

Perhaps a few examples are in order. If you are a ham operator and are active on the air, anyone (either another ham or just a short-wave radio listener) can get your call sign, go on the World Wide Web and access a license database from the U.S. government that has your name, address and birthday! If the government database is off-line, not to worry — there are at least three other web sites that have the same data.

If you were paying attention to the press a few weeks ago, you would have heard about a major on-line database, widely used by professionals, that, for a period of 11 days, made available to anyone who knew what to ask for details about you that included your social security number. A loud, negative public reaction to this offering caused the company to change its service so that the social security number is no longer available. I don't know about you, but I still wonder how this company got my personal details in the first place.

That, of course, is the crux of the issue. How exactly do the people who offer to "give me up" get the data? The answer is, I gave it to them, just as you have given your data to them. We do it in a hundred ways, and we have been doing it for years. It is done thoughtlessly and innocently and inadvertently, but nonetheless, we do it. What does it mean? What is the extent of the danger to ourselves and our friends and families? After all, we live in a country that is governed with our consent, what harm could there be? (That last sentence was heavy with irony, in case you missed it.)

The first floor is in place

Many years ago, I read a book that I have never forgotten. In a roundabout way, it was about this very issue. The book was titled, The Stainless Steel Rat, by Harry Harrison. It was about a world that was just about to finish the monumental task of putting all of the details about all of the people on the face of the earth into one gigantic database.

The scenario was that physical money would no longer be needed, because everywhere you went, there would be a terminal that would know all about you, if you just passed close enough to be scanned. The hero of the piece was the fellow who was hired to complete the programming of the massive system with the details of the last un-entered people. At this point, the protagonist realizes that he has the ability to be the only person on the planet who is NOT entered into the system, and this state of affairs might have a benefit. He poses a question to himself: What kind of varmint could survive in a house made entirely out of stainless steel? The answer, of course, is a stainless steel rat.

We are rapidly approaching a time when it will be hard to quibble with those who believe that the Internet and the government have together, perhaps inadvertently, built the first floor of a stainless steel house.

Contact Wendell Bailey at: wbailey@prodigy.com

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