Software Musings

Take me to your leader

Posted on: 17/03/2007

Various people have recently pointed out my ambivalent attitude towards privacy. Generally I would consider myself very protective of my personal information. I have, for example, a pseudonym, James Robertson (sometimes Jim), that I use for unimportant things—signing into buildings, etc.—where I obviously don’t want to leave my real name. I have no idea where this name came from but I have used it for years. Presumably, from his name, James is a tall Scotsman given to impatience. Nothing to do with jam.

I firmly resent the transition that seemed to happen almost unnoticed in the UK from the government being my servant to the government being my master. I still remember the shock I felt when Mrs Thatcher, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, publically referred to herself as the “leader” of the nation. Until then Prime Ministers had seen themselves, at least in public and peacetime, as servants of the nation. I think that that was when the switch happened and my private information became the property of “the nation” and it could be used in any way the nation thought fit. Of course, the terrorist events of 11/09 in the USA offered our leaders further opportunities to reduce our privacy.

When I first moved to Ontario from the UK eleven years ago, I had to take a driving test. After the test my new, Ontario driving licence was issued but unfortunately my name had presented a problem to the Canadian computer. I have three christian names and a surname and the computer only allowed three names in all. When the clerk typed my name in, the first christian name, Christopher, fell off the left-hand edge of the screen and my licence was issued in my second and third christian names and my surname. I have been assured many times that this is not a problem since I am free to use whichever of my christian names I like. Indeed, I understand that many people use their middle name of three all the time, being ashamed of, or embarrassed by, their first name.

This week I received a charity appeal from a group called “The War Amps”, presumably something to do with the electricity supply (quaintly known here, by the way, as the “Hydro”—you know you’re really Canadian when you realise that your “Hydro Bill” is the bill for your electricity rather than your water). The interesting thing was that it was addressed exactly to the person recorded on my driving licence, a form of my name that is used nowhere else. Of course, I immediately reported what appears to have been a major breach of government security to the appropriate minister and am waiting for a response. If there has been a leakage of my private information from the Government of Ontario it will presumably mean court cases, lawyers, etc., a prospect to which I’m not looking forward.

So, whence the ambivalence? I have recently started backing up my computer at home not to a DVD every Saturday morning as in times of yore but to Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (S3) daily. This costs me $0.15 per month per Gigabyte (or Gibibyte—the contract with Amazon is unclear), means that I don’t have the trouble of writing and storing DVDs and allowed me to exercise my web service skills in writing the backup program (available as open source and described at this location on Google Docs). And there are the two rubs: I store the information from my personal computer on an Amazon computer and my documents (and email) on a Google computer. Both of these computers presumably reside in the USA and are therefore completely open to George Bush, the president of that beleaguered country, or any other paid-up member of the Republican Party.

This is where the ambivalence comes in: I wrote a letter to my bank recently criticising its decision to use a US-based storage facility because this effectively made all its records openly available and yet I feel comfortable using the Amazon and Google computers to store everything from my 2005 income tax returns to my latest thoughts on non-linear policy engines.

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Disclaimer

The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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