It’s the Data Do-Gooders vs. the Gossip No-Goodniks.

Public disclosure of private information was hot in Sunday’s papers, with both the New York Times and kissin’ cousin Boston Globe featuring big takeouts on the topic.

The Times piece chronicles the gossip industry’s increasing access to celebrities’ confidential health and legal records (and the ensuing professional/personal havoc the disclosure wreaks).

The Globe piece examines the social value we could get if people allowed their personal information to be analyzed in order to further the public good.

From the Times:

The Gossip Machine, Churning Out Cash

[Lots of Lindsay Lohan, (Dad) Michael Lohan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, family housekeeper, illegitimate child and assorted other trashpress examples go here]

This new secrets exchange has its own set of bankable stars and one-hit wonders, high-rolling power brokers and low-level scammers, many of whom follow a fluid set of rules that do not always comport with those of state and federal law, let alone those of family or friendship.

Now there is a growing effort to stop the flow of private information. In the past few years, a federal Department of Justice team in Los Angeles has conducted a wide-ranging investigation into illegal leaks of celebrity health records and other confidential files, according to officials involved. Working in secret, they have plumbed cases involving Tiger Woods, Britney Spears and Farrah Fawcett, among others.

Raise your hand if you think that will stem the tide of leaked documents from hospitals, coroners’ offices, or Police Departments.

Us neither.

On the flipside is the Globe Ideas piece, which lays out The Problem:

Taken together, the information that millions of us are generating about ourselves amounts to a data set of unimaginable size and growing complexity: a vast, swirling cloud of information about all of us and none of us at once, covering everything from the kind of car we drive to the movies we’ve rented on Netflix to the prescription drugs we take.

Who owns the data in that cloud has been the subject of ferocious debate. It’s not all stored in one place, of course — our lives are tracked and documented by a diffuse assortment of entities that includes private companies like Google and Visa, as well as governmental agencies like the IRS, the Department of Education, and the Census Bureau. Up to now, the public conversation on this kind of data has taken the form of an argument about privacy rights, with legal scholars, computer scientists, and others arguing for tighter restrictions on how our data is used by companies and the government, and consumer advocates instructing us on how to prevent our information from being collected and misused.

And an Ideal Solution:

But a small group of thinkers is suggesting an entirely new way of understanding our relationship with the data we generate. Instead of arguing about ownership and the right to privacy, they say, we should be imagining data as a public resource: a bountiful trove of information about our society which, if properly managed and cared for, can help us set better policy, more effectively run our institutions, promote public health, and generally give us a more accurate understanding of who we are. This growing pool of data should be public and anonymous, they say — and each of us should feel a civic responsibility to contribute to it.

That’s “the concept of a ‘data commons’ — a sort of public garden where everyone brings their data to be anonymized and made available to researchers working in the public interest.”

And there you have it – private interest (Hands Off My Data) vs. public interest (Hand Over My Data).

No-Goodniks vs. Do-Gooders.

Raise your hand if you think the former will win.

Us too.


John R. Carroll, who also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town, is an NPR media analyst and mass communication professor at Boston University.
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