Everyone has a profile

TV iconThe 80s cult TV show Max Headroom depicted a post-apocalyptic world dominated by television networks as corporate overlords. There was direct democracy, you could vote right on your television, but only for who should win a contest or whether a condemned man should die. Think electronic lynch mob.
In this big-brother-televises-all world, there was a curious identity concept for describing people who lived off the grid. They were called Zeros and they lived literally outside the confines of the physical city infrastructure. (So difficult it was to conceive of how a person could escape oversight.) Little was known about their personal details, hence, they were zeros.

This was quite different from being unknown. Zero denotes something, specifically the absence of it. (The Latin numeral system stalled for lack of a zero.) In Max Headroom a Zero was a person about which suspicion was cast, due to the absence of the expected accumulation of data. An empty file was a flag, basically. You could choose to keep you cards close to your chest, but you would be watched more closely as a result.

I think the Zero anonymity dilemna is a fine example of the difficulty we face today in wrestling our privacy from the information merchants. It used to be patriots feared that our social security numbers would be used to track our personal records. This would have been true when the thought of synthesizing phone books by surnames was too daunting. But number-crunching has now well exceeded that kind of challenge. Computers can sort and group any number of variables, there is no need for a single unique SS number. A person’s name, birth date and birthplace provide specificity enough. Add to that the cloud of extra information: whereabouts, financial activity, utilities, phone and computer records, etc.

By the time you accumulate clouds of data for millions of people, patterns appear and the statistical laws of actuarial science, which have always served the insurance industry so well, begin to make the anomalies stand out. An analyst would be able to deduce quite a few things about you to which you are probably oblivious yourself. But most of all they can spot when someone is trying to manipulate their data footprint. And seeing that action in itself adds to your profile.

While to call an information-insurgent a Zero would be insufficiently descriptive, it makes the point. If you don’t have any phone on record, information analysts do not conclude that you lack a phone. If there’s a bill you’re not paying, or something you’re overpaying, there’s a probable hypothesis analysts will draw. The information industry is not in the business of knowing nothing.

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Eric Verlo

About Eric Verlo

On sabbatical
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