The importance of personal privacy and our awareness started even before the Internet, with a terrible tragedy. In 1989, Rebecca Schaeffer was a fresh faced actress just beginning her career and on the rise with a successful sitcom, when her personal privacy was breached, with tragic consequences.
The story is well documented, including extensive coverage by CourtTV. To summarize, an obsessed fan went to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, and simply asked for Rebecca's address. At the time there were no controls or policies in place to prevent the sharing of her personal information: the DMV simply gave an address upon request.
With her address in hand, her stalker was able to visit Rebecca at her home, and shoot her. Obviously, privacy policies and awareness have changed since this tragic event, but the risk remains. Today, we are all familiar with data breaches, where our companies inadvertently lose the personal information of their employees or clients. In the U.S., stealing personal information is typically part of stealing an identity. In other countries, it can to kidnapping and ransom requests.
This event also foreshadowed the rise of identity theft in the United States. If its that easy to get your personal information from the DMV, attackers could also go after credit bureaus and other sources. Unfortunately, many organizations, specifically credit bureaus, were reluctant to put additional controls in place to prevent identity theft: they make money by issuing credit. The more credit that is available the more money they make. Controls to limit identity theft would also slow down and limit access to credit by qualified consumers. Many credit bureaus were reluctant to put those controls in place.
Today, the good news most consumers are aware of identity theft and the importance of protecting their personal information. And options exist to limit access to credit information and monitor your credit profile.
Unfortunately, it just took so long to make that progress.
Progress but Still Concerns
While things have changed for the better since this tragic event, they have also changed. This article from 2009 highlights that:
I Am Here: One Man's Experiment With the Location-Aware Lifestyle
To test whether I was being paranoid, I ran a little experiment. On a sunny Saturday, I spotted a woman in Golden Gate Park taking a photo with a 3G iPhone. Because iPhones embed geodata into photos that users upload to Flickr or Picasa, iPhone shots can be automatically placed on a map. At home I searched the Flickr map, and score—a shot from today. I clicked through to the user's photostream and determined it was the woman I had seen earlier. After adjusting the settings so that only her shots appeared on the map, I saw a cluster of images in one location. Clicking on them revealed photos of an apartment interior—a bedroom, a kitchen, a filthy living room. Now I know where she lives.
The ways our privacy can be violated have changed over the years. Our service is long overdue.