Far fetched? Yes. But not out of the realm of possibility. And as computing power grows and gets cheaper, increasingly more possible. Still, definitely on the tin-foil-hat side of the spectrum.
Here’s a more likely harm scenario, and it doesn’t require any use of pseudonymous or identifying data at all.
You surf the net under the watchful gaze of Web tracking networks. They record the Web sites you visit and your clickstream. They compile that into an anonymous profile, which they then market to various interested parties. Some are advertisers who want to deliver targeted ads to you. Others are insurance companies, credit card processors, or background investigators who want to run business intelligence software on this data and score it, the same way they run BI software on your financial history to create your credit score.
They discover that people who visit the same kinds of sites you like to visit tend to be bad credit risks, file more health insurance claims, or are involved in more employee lawsuits than the average bear. So you are denied that new credit card, your health insurance premiums shoot through the roof, or that job you coveted goes to the second most qualified person who applied. You of course, will be aware of none of this, because it happens entirely in the background. And if you share your computer/browser with someone else, their anonymous data could get mixed in with yours.
Behavioral targeting already happens in the real world, and now it’s moving to the virtual one. (This is also what Columbia law professor and privacy purist Eben Moglen says Facebook is doing with its data, though he offers no tangible proof.) The poster child for this is Kevin Johnson, whose American Express credit limit was slashed after he used his card at a nearby Wal-Mart, because his fellow Wal-Marters apparently don’t pay their bills.
Am I smoking crack? Nope. In fact, this is so much a part of the online tracking economy that the Digital Advertising Alliance, a consortium hell-bent on making self regulation work, issued new rules for how its members could use data gathered across multiple sites. Per Evidon’s blog, the rules…
…specifically prohibit the use of multi-site data for a range of itemized adverse decisions, including employment eligibility, credit eligibility, health care treatment/eligibility, and insurance eligibility.
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