December 14, 2000

A Cautionary Tale


Privacy goes public in a digital age, by Mike Boone

This story appeared in the page 2 column (sort of a city column) in today's Montreal Gazette.

In a nutshell, (if you can't or are too lazy to go read it yourself), it tells of a teacher in the communications department of a local university - not exactly a digital babe-in-the-woods. He purchased a Visor (something like a palm pilot) with an extra data storage unit; the storage thing was defective so he exchanged it. The retailer in question is Quebec's version of Staples.. not just the equivalent of Staples, but actually part of the Staples company.

So the store ended up putting the "defective" storage unit on a floor model for display.. and the next thing you knew this teacher's personal data had been found by a friend who was playing with the unit in the store.

Far fetched? Only the part about the friend actually finding it.. but some parts of the Montreal area function as small towns so I can believe it.

The private information included PIN codes, students' grades anddddddddd... a personal journal, of all things. Only this one wasn't meant for public consumption.

What I can't figure out is, why he kept the journal on his Palm-like thing. I don't know much about them (not wanted to be tempted I have avoided mere mention of them!) but my understanding is, they're difficult to type on. Someone recently told me you can attach a keyboard but I pretended not to hear her say that. Perhaps he downloaded his journal files from his main computer.. but why? I'd be nervous about keeping any kind of private journal on a hard drive (she said, as she posts her life online..)

And what about the PIN codes? Mine are nowhere but in my head and they don't involve any family birthdays or street addresses or anything else that can be deduced. The teacher in the article should have known better.. but still it's outrageous that the store didn't attempt to erase any data before they put that unit out on the shelves!

There's an old joke circulating around email, something like, "Is it still paranoia if people really ARE out to get me?"
The answer to that must be "no", by definition.

From dictionary.com:

par·a·noi·a (pr-noi) n.

A psychotic disorder characterized by delusions of persecution or grandeur, often strenuously defended with apparent logic and reason.
Extreme, irrational distrust of others.

The second definition is the one most widely used and the key word is "irrational". The irrationality bar has been raised.. way up. I don't even know if it's possible to be paranoid about one's personal information anymore.

Time Magazine is set to announce (on Sunday) its Person of the Year. This used to be called "Man of the Year" but has been amended, probably due to the forces of political correctness. I find it somewhat patronizing when the more clumsy "person" is used instead of "man" (e.g. chairperson) because to me "man" refers to "mankind".

Anyway, my nomination for this prestigious honour is the guy on the Broward County canvassing board.. the one to the right on the TV screen, in the white shirt, who sat for days peering into a magnifying glass with eyes crossed and mouth hanging slightly open.

If he isn't the perfect symbol for this year (especially for the America-centrics among us) I don't know who is!

One Year Ago Today (more or less): Assorted Rants

In reference to the second part of that entry, my rantlet about the teaching (or lack thereof) of history in school.. I just received a phone call from the ChairMAN (who is a woman) of the committee that I'm on at Rob's high school, updating me on an issue that was discussed at the last meeting and requesting a quick phone "vote". Part of the change (not the part that needed voting on) was the addition of a World History course for senior year. It's only an option and probably nobody will take it.. but it's still a step in the right direction. Maybe I'll ask Rob to repeat the year..

Linque Du Jour:   PenguinCam!

This one is from the New England Aquarium, courtesy of the Boston Channel.

The penguins in question are baby "blue" penguins, native to Australia. As well as the live webcam there's an entertaining and informative page detailing the care and feeding of these adorable creatures.

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